Runway or another?

The Davies Commission has today reported back from its three-year long review into additional runway capacity in the South East with the answer most people had anticipated – backing for a third runway at Heathrow.

The report argues that it will add £147bn in economic growth and 70,000 jobs by 2050. So surely something the Government will back? Things in politics – and particularly in this Parliament – aren’t quite so easy.

Here are five factors David Cameron will be weighing up before rushing to a decision:

  1. His own reputation – David Cameron once planted a tree on a field in west London as a symbolic protest against Heathrow expansion. In the run-up to 2010, he promised he would oppose expansion “no ifs, no buts”. There is always space for political u-turns – particularly with the current Government’s focus on economic growth above all else – but this one has potential to make him look very silly.
  2. Cabinet splits – this is an issue that splits the Cabinet. While George Osborne is very pro-Heathrow, other members are very much against – including Greg Hands, Theresa May, Phillip Hammond and Justine Greening. With Europe looming, how many issues can Cameron debate within the party?
  3. The Zac and Boris factor – two vocal, box office opponents of Heathrow, these two will be able to rally significant levels of support to their cause. Is Cameron better off keeping them inside the tent? Boris Johnson has already come out to say Heathrow won’t happen. Zac Goldsmith in particular has pledged to trigger a by-election if the Government backs Heathrow expansion but also has the added nuclear option of being the ‘independent’ anti-Heathrow candidate in the London mayoral election.
    With the Mayoral election taking place next year (2016), there is a risk of central Government being challenged by candidates in the election and then whoever is finally elected.
    The platform of Mayor of London is a powerful one and has been used to exercise influence on central Government by both Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson. Which is better for Cameron – Zac in Parliament, a Tory Zac in City Hall or an independent Zac in City Hall?There are also implications for the Zac Goldsmith mayoral campaign – should Cameron choose to ignore Davies and thus eliminate the threat of Heathrow expansion – where does that leave the Goldsmith policy platform?
  4. Business support – this has tended to centre on Heathrow expansion. Given the likely tensions around the European negotiations and referendum, is this one to give to the business lobby to demonstrate commitment to economic growth.
  5. The lack of organised, official opposition – while Labour is very much turned in on itself, selecting a new leader, deputy leader and a mayoral candidate, is now the time to make a stand on an important issue and show some fight?

Whichever way he turns, Cameron will face criticism. The only way anything will be resolved in this long saga is through strong leadership from the top – but how much political capital will need to be expended either way? The long-grass option will be looking extremely appealing.