Guardian News and Media/London
Theresa May has been accused of “dither and delay” by Sadiq Khan, the London mayor, after putting off a parliamentary vote on airport expansion for another year.
There are strong signs that a Cabinet committee will decide next week to back expansion at Heathrow after the prime minister set out plans to let ministers such as Boris Johnson and Justine Greening carry on opposing the government’s position.
However, May also appears to have shelved plans for a parliamentary vote on the issue this autumn after being warned of possible Conservative resignations in south-west London, including Zac Goldsmith, who would be prepared to run as an independent.
Khan, who backs expansion at Gatwick, said he thought the prime minister needed to be more decisive about airport expansion after so many years of delay.
“The government’s decision to yet again delay deciding where to build a new runway will cause unnecessary uncertainty for British businesses already struggling with Brexit,” he said.
“Now, more than ever, businesses need certainty and stability in order to make investment decisions and to keep jobs in Britain. Instead they are getting dither and delay.”
Sir John Armitt, a former member of the Airports Commission that backed a third runway at Heathrow in 2015, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that it was a step forward for a government decision to be made next week. He said he was “pretty confident” there was support in the House of Commons and across the country for Heathrow expansion.
But he added: “It is another delay and I am not quite sure why it takes a year for that debate to take place because there has been a lot of consultation and MPs are well up to speed on this issue. I would have hoped it could have taken place sooner than a year’s time.”
Grant Shapps, the former Tory co-chairman, said more “guts and authority” was needed and he was “sorry this is going to be fudged for another year”.
Speaking to the International Business Times, Goldsmith yesterday said Heathrow could still be stopped by “more years of dithering and delay”.
Goldsmith, the former Conservative mayoral candidate, added: “For my part, I made a promise some years ago, and I will honour it. But for now I am concentrating on winning the arguments.”
Two Conservative sources told the Guardian on Tuesday that Downing Street had been warned by whips that May could face resignations and by-elections in seats that could be lost to the Liberal Democrats in south-west London when there is a vote on Heathrow expansion.
May outlined her timetable on Tuesday in a letter to Cabinet colleagues, saying Cabinet ministers with longstanding opposition to the chosen option could dissent publicly as long as they do not campaign against the government or speak against it in parliament.
However, her official spokeswoman could not say whether Conservative MPs would eventually be given a free vote when the final decision was put before parliament. Asked how many ministers have threatened to resign over the decision on aviation strategy, she said: “I’m not keeping a tally.”
Downing Street sources said May had not categorically ruled out holding a preliminary vote before winter of next year, but pointed out the only legal requirement was for a vote in the final stages, when a national policy statement needed for planning purposes is put to parliament for approval.
May allowed a discussion of airport capacity at cabinet on Tuesday morning, but the final decision on whether to back expansion at Heathrow or Gatwick will be taken by a smaller subcommittee by the end of this month.
They will choose between three options examined by the Airports Commission, led by Sir Howard Davies: a third runway at Heathrow, which was the preferred choice, the extension of an existing runway at Heathrow, or the building of a second runway at Gatwick.
The commission, established under the coalition government more than four years ago, gave a “clear and unanimous” verdict in July 2015 in favour of building a third runway at Heathrow, costing an estimated £17.6bn. But ministers have since almost entirely referred to Davies’ shortlist, delivered in 2013, which included a £7.1bn second runway at Gatwick, as well as the Heathrow Hub scheme, an alternative £13.5bn proposal for Heathrow to expand an existing runway.
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