Sir Howard Davies did Prime Minister David Cameron no favours yesterday when he recommended building a third runway at London’s Heathrow Airport, a proposal that Cameron had previously ruled out with “no ifs, no buts.”
Davies’ conclusions shoved Cameron into yet another political firestorm, with pressure mounting last night from senior members of his own party – including government ministers and the Mayor of London Boris Johnson – to reject the plan.
Downing Street indicated yesterday that Cabinet ministers would not be able to comment on Davies’ recommendations until the government had decided its position later this year. But last night, international development secretary Justine Greening, whose Putney constituency is affected by Heathrow’s flight paths, said: “My constituents will be extremely disappointed with the independent Airports Commission’s recommendation of a third Heathrow runway.”
Earlier in the day, Johnson insisted that the third runway “will not happen”.
Yet at Prime Minister’s Questions, acting Labour leader Harriet Harman said that Cameron was “being bullied by Boris,” adding that the Labour party would support the Davies recommendations if put to a vote in the House of Commons.
Cameron gave little indication of the government’s leanings, saying only that he would “read this report and a decision will be made by the end of the year” and that he would not rule out “one particular option” for fear that doing so would lead to legal challenges under so-called “judicial review”.
But whatever he decides, Cameron stands to satisfy only part of his sharply divided party.
While chancellor George Osborne and business secretary Sajid Javid have pointed to the economic benefits of building another runway at Heathrow, many other Cabinet members, including foreign secretary Philip Hammond and home secretary Theresa May, along with Greening, have previously spoken out against the plan, citing the interests of their constituents.
The odds-on favourite to replace Boris Johnson as Mayor of London, Tory backbencher Zac Goldsmith, also vehemently opposes a third runway at Heathrow. Goldsmith, an environmental activist who represents Richmond Park in west London, has gone so far as to vow to quit the party if the government goes ahead with the expansion, a move that would likely call into question the Conservatives’ ability to keep the keys to City Hall.
To make matters more complicated, if the Prime Minister backs the Airport Commission’s proposals, he stands to be criticised for going back on his word from 2010, when he said a third runway would not be built, “no ifs, no buts.” But if he opposes the plan, he is likely to come under attack for wastefully ignoring a report that cost the taxpayer £20m.
It is just the latest in a series of political headaches for the Prime Minister, who despite securing a surprising triumph for the Conservatives at the General Election, has already been confronted by backbencher rebellions and intra-party rows over the European Union.