by Steve Beasant on 2 November, 2016
The MP for Richmond Park had little influence in the Tory party and, if re-elected, will now have even less
I was pleasantly surprised by David Cameron’s reaction. I had expected him to reject my suggestion out of hand. After all, what I was proposing was a radical departure from the process we’d set up in the Coalition and was bound to spark controversy.
But midway through the last parliament I had become privately convinced that the decision about expanding airport capacity was heading for the rocks and that we needed to do something bold.
So it was that he and I had a conversation in his office — no officials, ministers or special advisers present — which, if I’d had my way, would have had far-reaching consequences.
“The Davies Commission is bound to find in favour of Heathrow,” I explained, “and the Treasury is fixated on Heathrow too. But it will never get built on time and on budget, and it might never get built at all. The political, environmental and financial risks are just too high. You’ve made a ‘no ifs no buts’ pledge but the Lib-Dems will never consent to it. So why don’t we just cut through all this interminable delay and announce, as a Coalition, that we’re going to build a second runway at Gatwick instead? It might not be everybody’s perfect solution but at least it is affordable and workable in a way Heathrow never will be.”
Encouragingly, Cameron said he’d been having exactly the same thoughts. He’d even commissioned some private polling to gauge local public opinion in the Gatwick area. But it was a highly sensitive issue — we’d both set up the Davies Commission to provide independent advice — and so he wanted to consult George Osborne and get back to me.
A couple of weeks elapsed — it was one of those rare discussions which at least we knew would not leak as no one else was involved — and then Cameron finally got back to me to say that Osborne had dissuaded him from backing my plan. The Chancellor, to be fair, had never hidden his own strongly held view that it was either Heathrow or bust.
So I dropped the idea, the Davies Commission did what I always knew it would — find in favour of Heathrow — and last week a Conservative Government, unencumbered by Lib- Dems, gave the green light to another Heathrow runway. I predict that the project will either not go ahead or, if it does, will be so lamentably delayed and so spectacularly over budget that people will ask in years to come, “Why didn’t we just build the wretched runway at Gatwick instead?”
Even though events have broadly played out as I anticipated, there have been some recent twists to the tale that provide further explanation as to how we’ve landed ourselves in this predicament.
For a start, of course, the fact that the Lib-Dems got so unceremoniously hammered by the Conservatives at the last election removed the last serious block to the Heathrow decision in Whitehall (not to mention the last serious block on excessively unfair welfare cuts, selection in education, a misguided EU referendum and much else besides).
And then there’s the electric effect of the Brexit vote: I strongly suspect that the principal reason why Theresa May reversed her own objections to Heathrow and ignored the whimpering from Boris Johnson and Justine Greening around the Cabinet table is because she is increasingly — and rightly — panicking about the perception of her Government amongst the business community. Her anti-business grandstanding at the Conservative Party conference, combined with the economic illiteracy of “hard Brexit”, is provoking widespread alarm among businesses large and small across the country.
So the PM will have persuaded herself that over-ruling the doubters and backing Heathrow would have been the best way to prove, at a stroke, that her Government is “open for business” after all. Indeed, the inanity with which Chris Grayling repeated that meaningless phrase in Parliament last week suggests this was indeed the key motive behind the decision.
Which brings us, inevitably, to the latest twist in this peculiar saga: the by-election in Richmond. Zac Goldsmith is probably unaware of the irony but his support for Brexit, like that of many Tory MPs, was the final nail in the coffin for his anti-Heathrow campaign. Not only are his Brexit views directly contrary to the stated wishes of the majority of his own constituents, they have unwittingly contributed to his ineffectiveness as a voice against Heathrow.
Even before the Brexit vote it was never clear to me what Goldsmith was trying to achieve. In all the hours of discussion with Cameron, Osborne and other Conservative Cabinet ministers about airport expansion, the establishment of the Davies Commission, the details of its terms of reference and so on, I can’t remember one occasion when Goldsmith’s name came up. By contrast, Conservative high command was nervous to the point of neurosis about the views of Boris Johnson.
When Sir Howard Davies pronounced himself against “Boris Island” in one of his interim reports, I remember senior Conservatives were on tenterhooks about how Boris would react. He clearly wielded real clout — then if not now — but Goldsmith was largely marginal to their concerns.
Which makes his decision to trigger a by-election all the more curious: if he had such limited influence over Conservative ministers as a Conservative MP, why on earth should he have any greater influence by flouncing out as an MP?
If I was Chris Grayling or Theresa May I would be delighted if Goldsmith won on December 1: they took little notice of him before on Heathrow, and will find it even easier to do so again.Leave a comment