quarta-feira, 26 de outubro de 2016
Theresa May hopes Heathrow will bring clearer post-Brexit skies
Theresa May hopes Heathrow will bring clearer post-Brexit skies
After decades of political wrangling, airport expansion gets the go-ahead.
By TOM MCTAGUE AND CHARLIE COOPER 10/26/16, 12:19 AM CET Updated 10/26/16, 12:38 AM CET
LONDON — Once again, Theresa May made a big show of a break with her predecessor at Downing Street.
And once again, as on her decision on a nuclear plant this summer, so on her big call on Tuesday to give Heathrow the green light to grow, the current British prime minister followed the path set out by David Cameron while seeming to forge her own.
May’s decision ends decades of political wrangling, court cases and backroom lobbying and, she hopes, signals to the world that post-Brexit Britain is a great place to do business.
This was a step, she told ministers, toward creating “a more outward-looking Britain.” A new prime minister agreeing on a new runway for a post-Brexit Britain.
“It’s about a national decision that’s in the national interest,” May’s official spokeswoman said Tuesday. The spokeswoman pointed out that the decision on airport capacity had been “ducked by successive governments for 40 years” but had now been taken in May’s first four months in office, despite opposition in her own constituency.
But look closely and May’s decision appears far less of a break with Cameron.
May has not decided – in public at least — whether or not to grant Conservative MPs a free vote on the issue, which is now government policy.
Senior Downing Street aides under Cameron insist plans were in place for the decision to be fast-tracked immediately after the EU referendum.
And while prime ministers come and go, one thing remained constant throughout the battle: The civil service machine wanted Heathrow and was determined to get it.
“It’s a victory for Whitehall above all,” one former senior aide at the Department for Transport said. “You could say it’s a classic victory for civil service inertia — or just a victory for hard evidence,” the former aide said. “Maybe it’s both.”
The mother of all lobbying battles
Britain’s hub airport has seen opposition from London mayors, past and present; a “no ifs, no buts” guarantee against expansion from former Prime Minister David Cameron and even past resistance from current Prime Minister Theresa May, whose Maidenhead constituency is just 14 miles from Heathrow.
Over the past decade, any number of alternatives have been suggested. Boris Johnson, now foreign secretary, wanted a brand new floating airport built in the Thames Estuary. London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan used to back Heathrow but changed his mind ahead of this year’s mayoral election in favor of Gatwick.
As transport secretary, Philip Hammond (now Chancellor of the Exchequer) floated the idea of “Heathwick” – linking the two airports with a new high-speed line — but civil servants refused to even begin preliminary work on the proposal before he was moved to the defense ministry in 2011 when Liam Fox was forced to resign. (Fox is now the secretary of trade.)
As a final decision loomed, Heathrow and Gatwick squared off in the mother of all lobbying battles.
In a country where advertising space is rarely given over to policy questions, readers of the country’s leading newspapers and passengers on the London Underground would have been hard pressed to miss the rival claims. At one stage, Gatwick bought all the advertising slots at Westminster tube station to make its point to politicians.
According to the Sunday Times earlier this month, both Gatwick and Heathrow have spent at least £30 million on their lobbying and advertising campaigns, while Heathrow Hub, the campaign group proposing an alternative plan to extend an existing runway at Heathrow, has spent around £10 million.
The behind-closed-doors lobbying campaign will in all likelihood rumble on, as political opposition to Heathrow — in the shape of Johnson, Khan and others — gives hope that even now the plan could be derailed. But the public advertising will dry up, predicted Benedict Pringle, an advertising executive and analyst of political campaigns who founded the politicaladvertising.co.uk website.
With costs mounting “both airports are desperate to get back to promising their customers a pleasant and satisfying journey through their terminals,” Pringle said.
At the Department for Transport — which is now run by May’s close ally Chris Grayling, the Brexit campaigner who chaired her leadership campaign — there was never any choice between Gatwick and Heathrow.
In the department’s view, the battle is between creating lots of equally sized “point to point” airports around the country or a “hub and spoke” model with Heathrow dominant, linking the U.K. to the rest of the world.
Proposals such as Johnson’s “Boris Island” are little more than elaborate ways of opposing airport expansion, his critics insist. “It’s classic Boris – classic ‘cake and eat it’ stuff,” one senior Conservative source said. “He wants to be anti-Heathrow and pro-airport.”
Free votes and resistance
May still has to get the Heathrow expansion through a parliamentary vote. The government now faces resistance from all sides, including in the prime minister and chancellor’s constituencies.
Cameron’s former parliamentary aide Gavin Williamson, who now as May’s chief whip is responsible for winning her votes in the House of Commons, told the former PM before the referendum that he could solve the problem of backbench Tory resistance to a third runway by granting them a free vote.
“This runway has been defeated before and can be defeated again” — Greenpeace U.K. Executive Director John Sauven
Williamson, whose job under Cameron was to act as a liaison between Tory MPs and Number 10, told his then-boss not to whip the vote because there was a comfortable majority in favor of expansion with Labour and Scottish National Party support.
May has not decided – in public at least — whether or not to grant Conservative MPs a free vote on the issue, which is now government policy. However, she has allowed cabinet ministers with a history of opposition to Heathrow expansion, notably Johnson and the Education Secretary Justine Greening, the right to voice dissent — a rare and almost unconstitutional break from the convention of cabinet toeing the government line, known as collective responsibility.
There is concern in Westminster at the precedent May’s decision sets. “How can they not give MPs a free vote on HS2 [the high-speed rail line between London and Birmingham] or any other major infrastructure project now?” one senior Tory source said. “The genie is out of the bottle.”
Beyond Westminster, Khan and a number of Conservative-run local authorities in west London are vowing to unite to oppose the proposal, with legal challenges a near certainty.
Environmental charity Greenpeace said it was ready to work with Khan and the Conservative councils to defeat the plan.
“A third runway at Heathrow would be a waste of time, money and lives,” the charity’s executive director John Sauven said. “It was a bad idea when Blair, Brown and Cameron failed to get it built, and it remains a bad idea. This runway has been defeated before and can be defeated again.”
In the long run, the decision to expand Heathrow bodes well for Britain’s next big infrastructure projects – HS2 and Crossrail 2 under London – because they are strongly backed by the Department for Transport.
Yet, even with Whitehall backing, cabinet support and a prime minister prepared to make a decision, the third runway at Heathrow may still not be completed until 2030, according to the Airports Commission’s own timetable.
Whatever the final destination for Britain’s creaking infrastructure, the government is unlikely to get there anytime soon.
Tom McTague and Charlie Cooper