Heathrow expansion: a stalking horse for the Tory right wing?
Despite the issue officially being settled, with consensus across all three parties, the issue of Heathrow expansion reared its head again this week when a stinging rebuke of David Cameron appeared in the pages of the Telegraph by one of his own MPs. Tim Yeo, Chairman of the Energy & Select Committee, announced his support for the project at the same time as launching into a critique of Cameron’s failure to win the last election, his inability to communicate his political ideas to the public, and warning he risks becoming “…another Harold Macmillan, presiding over a dignified slide towards insignificance…”
Yeo is somebody who has made their name within their party for being a moderniser before it was fashionable, a man who regards the right-wing of his party with suspicion (the feelings are mutual), and an MP who has so openly tied themselves to the green agenda. To come out so openly on such an issue (and to have a crack at Cameron as well) is surprising, to say the least.
Reading between the lines, this op-ed raises two real issues; Yeo’s revival of the third runway debate, and his rather pointed critique of Cameron. It’s important to remember that Tim Yeo was previously one of the most vocal opponents to a third runway, as well as a strong supporter of Cameron’s ‘detoxification’ project, as the Tories repositioned themselves as a greener, nicer party. As such, this represents a dramatic U-turn for Mr. Yeo, who justifies his change of heart on economic, environmental, and political grounds.
Economically, he believes that a third runway would mean more flights to growing markets, boosting our export markets, while the cost would be met by BAA rather than the taxpayer and create extra jobs for our construction industry. Environmentally, Yeo claims he can now support airport expansion following the incorporation of aircraft emissions into the EU cap, which requires airlines to manage any extra flights to stay within the guidelines through use of modern (and quieter) planes. In theory, this means no net increase in airline emissions by expanding Heathrow, thus removing Yeo’s primary objection to the project. Politically, Yeo suggests the third runway could be the sort of flagship policy to give the Government a new found sense of purpose and direction, restoring business confidence in its policies – with the implication that this is indeed a Government that has lost its way.
Whether Yeo will get his way over Heathrow is still unclear. Officially, the Government remains committed to its 2010 manifesto pledge and the Coalition Agreement in opposing expansion, and as long as Justine Greening remains Transport Secretary this will not change; Greening’s Putney constituency is under the flight path and she explicitly tied her 2010 election campaign to opposition to expansion. Responding to Yeo’s piece in an interview on the Today programme, Greening dismissed calls for a third runway, saying that the new runway would be ‘too short’ to handle the largest planes and that the extra capacity would be used up within a few years, making it a short-term solution. Instead, the Government is planning to launch an evidence-based review of hub capacity process after the recess, with the stated aim of deciding on a solution that will create enough capacity for the next few decades, reporting back in March.
Of course, this is all subject to the upcoming reshuffle. Cameron has made it clear that he prefers to leave MPs in position as long as they’re performing, and with Greening widely seen to be handling her brief well, it would be difficult for him to remove her on performance issues, especially given the lack of Tory women in top jobs. A promotion in recognition of her good performance would save face, but the dynamics of coalition mean any promotion would have to be balanced with Liberal Democrat progression, and while Greening has refused to confirm or deny if she would resign from the Cabinet over Heathrow, Cameron may not want to risk a high-profile resignation. If Greening does go in the reshuffle, then it will be clear that the Government’s position has changed dramatically. Politically, however, the most expedient option is on Cameron letting Greening’s consultation play out, whilst leaving open the option of a reversal for the 2015 manifesto, rather than picking a fight with his Coalition partners over an issue already settled in the Coalition Agreement.
Of greater concern to Cameron should be Yeo’s attempt to tie Heathrow expansion into a test of the Government’s commitment to pro-growth policies. This adds Yeo’s voice to a growing number of MPs expressing concern with the Government’s perceived drift, such as David Davis, Conor Burns, and Nadine Dorries, with even Liam Fox expected to weigh in on the growth debate in the run-up to conference. Those in the party who are keen to reassert Conservative dominance within the Coalition may well be hoping that being able to link up with MPs like Yeo is a sign that opposition to Cameron is beginning to move beyond its natural base of the Tory Right.
The real test for Cameron will be how he handles what is looking to be a rather tetchy conference season. Once his critics feared him; not any more. By redefining their opposition in terms of concern about our economic direction, rather than an infantile sulk about having to govern in partnership with the Lib Dems, they have managed to broaden their appeal. If Cameron wants to lead his party into the next election, he needs to find a way to assuage their concerns. This year’s conference and reshuffle will definitely be worth watching.