Airport decision imminent, but delays set to continue for at least a year

Although it’s widely expected that the government will make an announcement next week that its preferred option for extra runway capacity is at Heathrow Airport, it is highly likely that Theresa May will not make a final decision on building the third runway at Heathrow for at least a year after announcing that she will give Boris Johnson and other opponents of Heathrow expansion the freedom to voice their opposition. 

The prime minister has apparently informed Cabinet colleagues that those with “strongly held views” on the scheme would not be put in the uncomfortable decision on having to back the government’s position in public if they do not agree with it.

The Telegraph reported this week that May has said that the government will announce its preferred choice for airport expansion by the end of the month, but that the decision will not be put before Parliament until the “winter” of next year.

It is believed that May’s decision to absolve Cabinet ministers from collective responsibility, which requires them to support government positions, will help the government avoid high profile resignations. Foreign secretary Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, the education secretary, are both long time opponents of Heathrow while business secretary Greg Clarke is opposed to Gatwick. 

The prime minister has said that ministers will be banned from campaigning “actively” against the government over the issue and publicly criticising the decision-making process. Ministers will also be prevented from speaking against the government’s position in the Commons and will only be able to voice their opposition for a limited period.

In a letter to her Cabiner colleagues, May said: “If the decision is contrary to the previous public positions already taken by some colleagues, or directly affects colleagues constituencies, you will not be expected publicly to advocate the Government’s collective decision. You will be permitted, to restate longstanding views that are already a matter of public record and to pass on the views of your constituents if they are directly affected.”

The move by May has already attracted criticism, with Grant Shapps, a former chairman of the Conservative Party slamming the decision to lift collective responsility. Speaking to LBC Radio this week, Shapps said: “It isn’t really acceptable to have ministers going their own way on this. I’ve sat round that Cabinet table, you have to come to collective decisions and then you have to back them.”

The decision to put off the final decision has surprised critics of Heathrow, who had been expecting the government to hold a snap vote in Parliament to push the scheme through. It follows decades of delays over airport expansion by successive Labour and Tory governments. 

The government is facing the real prospect of a rebellion from Conservative MPs in the south east if it opts for a third runway at Heathrow. Zac Goldsmith, the MP for Richmond Park, has already said he will resign his seat and run as an independent if the government supports Heathrow expansion. Goldsmith’s stance has been backed by Tania Mathias, the Conservative MP for Twickenham, who said: “Zac is doing the honourable thing by committing to his pledge and I fully support him in that.”

So, even though a decision is expected on airport expansion next week, the delays on actually building a new runway are set to continue for some time yet.

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