Upcoming elections may shake up the political stalemate over airport capacity.
THE ACCEPTED WISDOM regarding airport capacity and politics at the moment is that nothing is going to change for many years, and that we should all get used to this.
The narrative runs something like this: the Conservatives made hostility to Heathrow’s expansion a big part of their national re-brand from being the nasty party to the one that could aspire to being the greenest government … ever. In the key general election battleground of west London, candidates championed the cause and pledged not to support expansion. Plus, hostility to aviation per se runs through the core of the yellow half of the coalition, and there is no way they will budge on the issue.
All these factors add up to a considerable hurdle facing anyone who wants to change the direction of aviation policy. Fair enough. But we should remember that things change in politics – and they can change very quickly.
Take the hurdle of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government’s DNA being infused with hostility towards expanding airport capacity. I do not doubt this, but how long will the coalition survive?
The local elections on May 5 will give the Lib Dems, in particular, a fairly clear idea of where they stand with the electorate. A battering at the polls will start to make Lib Dem MPs and members very nervous over whether their leader is taking them in the right direction, and they will eye the next general election with a sense of foreboding.
Then we have the Alternative Vote referendum. The holy grail of the Lib Dems is electoral reform and the referendum concession was one of the chief prizes arising from the coalition negotiations. If this vote is lost, and if Conservative colleagues take delight in campaigning for a ‘no’ vote, it is likely to remove part of the bait that keeps the Lib Dems in the coalition and will undoubtedly strain relations within it.
The coalition is also coming under pressure from the right.
There is a sizable chunk of the Conservative Party that is simply not happy with the coalition and needs to be placated by the Cameron leadership team. They are picking their battles as parliament progresses and, every so often, are winning them, too.
What really irritates them is that they feel the Lib Dems win more concessions from their own party than they do. The more they feel the Lib Dems are dictating direction, the greater their own chagrin. It is this section of the party that feels an instinctive unease with the policy on airport capacity and is most disposed to ensuring UK plc is given what it wants.
And what if the question changes? What if Mayor of London Boris Johnson succeeds and shifts debate away from Heathrow and makes it about a new hub airport in the South East? Boris has deliberately sought to remove Heathrow from the equation and, in the coming months, it is likely we will see a more subtle communications approach from this wily political heavyweight.
If Boris is successful in opening up this debate it removes, to some degree, the ‘west London question’.
The MPs in this area may be freed from worrying about the promises they made to resist Heathrow expansion, although their concern may well shift to ensuring that Heathrow stays open – a massive issue for all those local communities that rely on it for employment.
So if, post-May 2011, we see a simultaneous shift of focus from Heathrow to capacity in the South East, the Lib Dems becoming increasingly twitchy about the coalition and their future prospects, the Conservative right-wing becoming more and more irritated by concessions they are seeing their party forced to make, and Boris progressing his ‘third way’ in terms of airport capacity in the South East, we might well see the political landscape shift and airport capacity in the South East stop being an issue that is swept under the carpet.
That’s a lot of ‘ifs’, admittedly but, while I would not claim the above scenario to be likely, it is a possibility.