Bill Jamieson: Turbulence trouble over Heathrow

The on-going row over an airport runway in London could eventually be enough to trigger a general election, says Bill Jamieson

The ideal solution would have been an airport on the Thames estuary, says Bill Jamieson

How many of us have come to hate airports, and Heathrow Airport in particular?

For a large number of Scots the very mention of the words “Terminal Five” sends us looking to Amsterdam for alternative arrangements. The long distances between the arrival terminal on one flight and the departure from another, the security hassles, the separation of liquids, the removal of belt and shoes – and the uneasy sense that a fair proportion of the entire flying population that day has booked itself on our flight. Whoever thought returning to Scotland from overseas via Heathrow was a good idea should be forced to empty their suitcases on a demonic carousel hurtling their possessions to Zanzibar.

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SNP ministers in Edinburgh have championed the proposal for an extra runway at Heathrow as “the best deal for Scotland”. There are, they say, mooted benefits for Prestwick and other Scottish airports. And it will, we are assured be good for Scottish business.

The ideal solution would surely have been for an airport on the Thames estuary, obviating the need for thousands of flights over one of the most densely populated cities in the world. It would have been speedier as well as safer, served by road and rail links into Stratford and Liverpool Street stations. No need, then, for a runway underneath, or even more bizarrely, over the M25.

This would also have avoided the epic legal and political stooshie that now lies ahead for the extra Heathrow runway plan. And over the next few weeks I sense that Scottish ministers may have serious cause to regret that declaration of support for the Heathrow proposal.

Even though the decision was well trailed, the TV news coverage in the first 48 hours of Prime Minister Theresa May’s decision to back Heathrow has bordered on the hysterical. For this additional runway has become the flashpoint for all manner of national concerns ranging across the environment, pollution, air safety, property concerns, cost – and not least local democracy. All these have been seen to run secondary to the interests of global trade and giant corporations.

But there is another reason why the final go-ahead, 14 years in gestation, has brought Westminster to a state of near nervous breakdown. Heathrow has been caught up in the row over the government’s approach to Brexit. There is a growing apprehension that the by-election triggered by Zac Goldsmith’s resignation - whatever one’s view of the mooted benefits of Heathrow expansion – may force a general election before long.

Goldsmith has long campaigned against the new runway. And he intends to stand as an independent candidate in the election contest.

What makes this a potentially lethal threat to Theresa May’s government is that the well-heeled constituency, Richmond, is traditional LibDem territory. It voted strongly for “Remain” in the June referendum on EU membership. And the Lib Dems have already signalled their intention to run a strong anti-Brexit campaign.

As their candidate, Sarah Olney, is also opposed to the Heathrow extension – though rather less zealous about it than Zac Goldsmith – the anti-runway voters of Richmond may feel that they have nothing to lose by supporting a candidate who would give the government a double kicking. A Lib Dem revival down south? Who could conceive of such a thing? But in the Witney by-election last week caused by the resignation of former Prime Minister David Cameron, the Lib Dem candidate Liz Leffman severely dented the Tory majority, from over 25,000 in the 2015 general election to just 5,702, with a swing of more than 19 per cent.

Now comes Richmond. Approximately three times more people voted Remain in the area (75,396) than live in the entire constituency of Witney (27,522). The local borough of Richmond upon Thames was the 20th strongest area for Remain in the referendum.

Lib Dem Party Leader Tim Farron hailed the Witney result as “a clear rejection of the Conservative Brexit Government’s plan to take Britain out of the single market”. Zac Goldsmith may want to frame this by-election as a “referendum on Heathrow” and guarantee himself a shoe-in. But it will not be that simple. He is not facing a pro-Heathrow candidate as the Tories have chosen not to put anyone up against him – and his Lib Dem rival agrees with him. This suggests there would not be much of a debate on the issue, so opposition to Brexit may well come to the fore.

Such an outcome in Richmond would almost certainly rattle the cage at Westminster and put further pressure on Theresa May to allow a Commons vote on triggering Article 50 of the EU Treaty that would formally launch the UK’s Brexit negotiations.

And with pro Remain backbench Conservative MPs emboldened by such a result, a close-run Commons vote could well force the government to call a general election rather than be confronted with a Commons defeat. After all, does not “Brexit mean Brexit”?

What a joyous outcome this would be for our First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Barely had she drawn breath on Monday – after a reportedly testy meeting of leaders from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland with Theresa May at Downing Street – than she was spitting tacks at the Conservative leader’s refusal to rule out a departure from the EU Single Market, or reveal any details of her negotiating stance.

The Richmond “anti-Heathrow” by-election could well provide a landmark protest vote against all the confusion, incoherence and shenanigans since Brexit. Is this not what Ms Sturgeon most keenly desires for Scotland?

But the SNP administration also supports the additional Heathrow proposal. So which camp would it now favour?

Few Richmond voters may worry much about “what the SNP thinks”. But that is not the point. The dilemma for the Holyrood administration is whether its previous support for the runway would outweigh the political attraction of creating maximum discomfort for the Tories over Brexit and potentially forcing the government to concede on membership of the Single Market, even before negotiations have begun.

How ironic that such a non-directly related issue as an airport runway could force the government into providing greater clarity on its Brexit intentions – and doubly ironic that the not-directly involved SNP administration should have parked itself on the other side of the fence on this issue. But it has long been an acknowledged skill in politics to be able to hold contradictory opinions at once and to espouse the two without a blush.

A public consultation will be held before the final decision is put to MPs for a vote in the winter of 2017/18. Given the lengthy time-scales involved, the new runway, even if survives lengthy legal challenges in the courts, may not be operational by 2025. Many believe it will take even longer.

This runway crisis is now set for a long and fiery run. So fasten your seat belts, please, as “turbulence over Heathrow” sets in.