While most of us are enjoying the summer weather, David Cameron was looking increasing uncomfortable as Harriet Harman ratcheted up the heat at today’s prime minister’s questions.
The Davies report, published today, unanimously backs a new third runway at Heathrow, providing a clear, unambiguous recommendation to expand the United Kingdoms’s hub airport and deliver long term prosperity – with a number of caveats. Harman seized the opportunity to ask the prime minister a seemingly simple question: ‘With all-party support the prime minister commissioned the Davies Review, does he agree with us that, subject to the key environmental tests being met….it should go ahead?’
We all knew this was coming, Cameron included, who was quick to push a future decision into the legal long-grass: ‘I’m very clear about the legal position, that if we say anything now, before studying the report, we could endanger whatever decision is made’.
Unfortunately, he failed to recognise Harman’s trap, agreeing that, ‘There is a lot of common ground across all sides of the House’ quickly caveating with ‘or almost all sides of the House’.
Harman swiftly picked up on the admission, noting ‘there is common ground across the House, the worry is the lack of common ground on his side’. It is well know that the Conservatives are split on the issue. Tory London mayoral hopeful Zac Goldsmith has promised to trigger a by-election if Cameron backs Heathrow expansion. Boris Johnson, still with his eyes on the future Tory leadership, was first out on the Today programme this morning to challenge the review with the rather odd claim ‘this is the sort of thing you could possibly have got away with in China in the 1950s’. Harman helpfully suggested that the prime minister tell Boris ‘he’s not the leader yet’, and asked, ‘will the prime minister stand up for Britain’s interests or will he be bullied by Boris?’
By this time, facing the Labour benches, who were clearly enjoying themselves, Cameron sought to calm the Commons by suggesting Harman ‘shouldn’t believe everything she reads in her morning papers.’ What about what we hear firsthand on the Today programme?
Harman, demonstrating her expertise at the despatch box, concluded with a serious point, ‘this week we’ve seen the government pull the plug on electrifying our railways and seriously undermine the renewable energy sector. Now they’re backing off over airports and risking losing the opportunity of Britain being at the heart of the global economy.’ She also further committed Labour to supporting a ‘swift decision’ by the government. Cameron, sensing the finish line, gave an assurance that a decision would be made ‘by the end of the year’.
Elsewhere this week, the Scottish National party asked repeatedly about the prime minister’s plans to exclude them from votes on English matters; Labour’s Graham Allen asked about plans to relocate parliament, if refurbished, and Dennis Skinner, causing particular excitement in the House, asked if, when on one of his trips to Europe, Cameron would claim state aid to save British mining jobs.
Just when the prime minister thought it was over, Zac Goldsmith was called by the speaker, asking ‘What assurances can he give the million or so Londoners that stand to be effected by the Heathrow expansion, that he will engage on the real arguments, in a way that Sir Howard Davies has not’.
In 2009, Cameron stated, ‘The third runway at Heathrow is not going ahead, no ifs, no buts’. As Labour’s shadow transport secretary, Michael Dugher, pointed out yesterday ‘a decision on aviation expansion should have been taken a long time ago – a failure of consecutive governments, including Labour ones.’ He is right of course and, as Harman indicated today, the responsibility now falls to Cameron to see beyond party politics and to take swift action to ensure Britain remains competitive and at the heart of the global economy.
Today’s response served to confirm the difficult political position that Cameron is in. While it is right that the report be digested and scrutinised – note Labour’s four tests that have already been set out – ultimately a debate which has raged since the 1970s will only be settled with clear and strong political leadership. Given the government’s commitments to job creation and investment in infrastructure, this is an ideal opportunity to make significant progress. Unfortunately, today’s response at PMQ’s indicates that that progress may be far from ‘swift’.
Kamella Hudson is a member of Progress