Whilst the Conservatives fight over this week’s Airport Commission report, expanding Heathrow is exactly the type of common sense, business friendly policy that Labour should be supporting as it seeks to win again. The party must embrace it argues Keiran Pedley
The Prime Minister has a leadership crisis on his hands.
Perhaps this crisis is not as serious as recent world events in Tunisia or Greece. Perhaps it does not animate Conservative back benchers as much as his plans to renegotiate Britain’s membership of the EU or present the most important immediate challenge of next week’s budget.
But make no mistake, it is a crisis.
The Airport Commission report, led by Howard Davies has been very clear in its recommendation that Heathrow must expand and as soon as possible. Sure, some caveats have been put in place, regarding banning night flights and meeting both air and noise pollution targets, but there has been no fudge or ambiguity in the report’s key recommendation – Heathrow must expand.
The report claims that expanding Heathrow will add billions to the economy, air fares will fall and thousands of jobs will be created. Crucially, alternative plans are considered either unworkable (Boris Island) or do not match the economic benefits of a third runway at Heathrow (Gatwick). Furthermore, the business community appears squarely behind the report’s conclusions, with the IoD and CBI urging the Prime Minister to avoid any ‘further delay’.
So why is this a crisis? Well, Cameron’s problem is many in his own party not only mildly disagree, but are utterly opposed to this policy. Cabinet is split, with high profile names such as Theresa May, Philip Hammond and Justine Greening opposed. The party’s likely next candidate for London Mayor, Zac Goldsmith, has threatened to resign and force a by-election in protest whilst Boris Johnson has not given up on his ‘Boris Island’ dream and will likely use this issue to champion his cause as the next Conservative leader in-waiting.
So this one may be a slow burner, but a crisis it is. The government’s immediate response is to kick the can down the road (again). It has said that a decision will be made later this year.
This all presents a tremendous opportunity for Labour. Much has been written before about Labour’s credibility problem and how it needs to win back trust on the economy. Fully backing the expansion of Heathrow will not solve this problem overnight, but it would be a welcome start. It is the type of opportunity that Labour ought to dream of. It is business friendly, creates jobs and piles substantial pressure on the Prime Minister from his own side too.
Early signs are positive. Harriet Harman was vocal in attacking David Cameron at PMQs whilst Liz Kendall has been quick to back the report’s findings too. I would be surprised if other candidates do not follow suit. This issue is live and not going away. As Labour seeks to reconnect with the electorate and show that it is a serious party of government once more it could do worse than champion Britain’s economic interests and job creation whilst not avoiding a tough decision in the process. It is, after all, what governments do.
Perhaps most of all this issues teaches us something important about the next parliament. With GfK data showing consumer confidence up and Labour leaderless, things look bleak for the party. However, events will happen, the government will mess up from time to time and at some point there will be an EU referendum and Conservative leadership contest to contend with. Labour’s path back to power may be a tough one, however, if it gets its act together it is not impossible.
Keiran Pedley is an Associate Director at Presenter of the podcast ‘Polling Matters’ He tweets about polling and politics at @keiranpedley