Jon Craig: The lobbying battle over airport expansion isn't over yet

Written by Jon Craig on 26 October 2016 in Opinion

The Heathrow expansion fight has seen more U-turns that a driver with a dodgy sat-nav.

The Heathrow-Gatwick battle has re-opened some old rivalries. Not just in politics, but in the world of spin and lobbying too.

Zac Goldsmith and the Liberal Democrats will now go head-to-head in a by-election in the seat Zac snatched from the Lib Dems in 2010.

For only the third time in 80 years the Government party will not put up a by-election candidate in a seat it holds. The last time was in 1963, when Tony Benn – Anthony Wedgewood-Benn as he was then – returned to the Commons after renouncing his peerage. The time before that was in 1936 when the Conservatives allowed Ramsay MacDonald to return as an MP.

In the world of spin and lobbying, the runway run-in has seen the Sun’s former political editor, George Pascoe Watson, squaring up to Godric Smith, who was Alastair Campbell’s deputy in Downing Street.

Some years back, Godric played for the New Labour elite‘s football team, Demon Eyes, which also included Andy Burnham and James Purnell, who later became Cabinet ministers. Named after a Tory poster of Tony Blair, Demon Eyes regularly played grudge matches against the Parliamentary Press Gallery, for whom Pascoe Watson was a star player.

Now, nearly 20 years after those Demon Eyes-Press Gallery fixtures, the battles of the football field have moved on to the airfield. Not so much Demon Eyes as demonising Heathrow.

Pascoe Watson is a partner at Portland Communications, founded by another Demon Eyes stalwart, Tim Allan, and the firm spearheading the Heathrow third runway campaign. Godric Smith and his consultancy, Incorporated London, were brought in to push for Gatwick’s second runway, putting him in an airborne battle against his old tough-tackling rival, GPW.

After the Cabinet chose Heathrow, it looked like 1-0 to Pascoe Watson against Smith. And it appeared that Zac Goldsmith had given himself a red card. But Zac and the other politicians opposed to Heathrow expansion aren’t giving up. They see it as more like half time in the first leg of a two-legged cup tie.

That’s because the Heathrow expansion fight – which goes back decades – has seen more U-turns that a driver with a dodgy sat-nav. Or, more accurately, an airline pilot caught in a lengthy and frustrating holding pattern in the congested skies over south-east England.

We all recall David Cameron’s “no ifs, no buts” pledge in 2009 that the third runway would never be built by the Conservatives. But who was this speaking in the same year, claiming her constituency would be “devastated”?

“I am clear that we must say no to a third runway at Heathrow,” this politician declared. “The Government’s case for expanding Heathrow is flawed. They are determined to press ahead without proper consideration of whether expansion is needed.”

Here’s a clue. Now her spokeswoman says: “This is a Government decision. It’s not a decision about a constituency. It is about a national decision that is in the national interest.”

No prizes for guessing correctly that the politician performing that U-turn was Theresa May, having pleaded on behalf of her Maidenhead constituency, which is half an hour’s drive from Heathrow, back in 2009.

But there have been Labour U-turns too. In 2008-09 Sadiq Khan was a transport minister in Gordon Brown’s government and backed a third runway at Heathrow. Now, as London’s mayor, he wants a second runway at Gatwick instead.

It’s too early to pick all of the winners and losers in this Heathrow-Gatwick battle. But among the biggest winners are no doubt the newspapers and other media outlets who have enjoyed months or massive advertising spending by the rival airports.

Willie Walsh, the one-time British Airways boss who now heads the giant International Airlines Group, has been a winner most of his business career and got a nice present from the Government on his 55th birthday. But he shouldn’t celebrate too much just yet.

The trade unions who backed Heathrow expansion are also pleased with the Government’s decision and are hoping their members will be winners.

The biggest losers at this stage are the residents of the village of Harmondsworth, in John McDonnell’s Hayes and Harlington constituency, who will now live under a death sentence for many more years, with the threat of having their homes demolished and their community destroyed.

The other big losers so far are environmental campaigners, whose arguments and protests about air quality, pollution and environmental issues appear to have been brushed aside by the Government.

But the environmentalists may eventually end up winners in the legal actions brought by four Tory local authorities, including Theresa May’s own Windsor and Maidenhead.

The ability of these legal challenges to influence events in the months and years ahead should not be under-estimated. And that means that in the legal fights as well as the political battles that are looming, the lobbying and spinning isn’t over yet.

Then there’s the cost of Heathrow expansion to taxpayers. In an otherwise pretty assured performance in the Commons, Chris Grayling floundered when challenged on the cost by the Wimbledon MP, the former Transport Minister Stephen Hammond.

Experts had estimated more than £11 billion of public money could be needed to make Heathrow a reality, while the Airports Commission said up to £5 billion, said Hammond.

How much taxpayers’ money, he demanded to know, would Heathrow expansion end up costing? But there was no answer.

Grayling was much firmer when another opponent, the Windsor MP Adam Afriyie, asked whether if the costs went up or the time slipped during the consultation period the Government would think again.

“We’re not entering this process with a view to changing our mind,” the Transport Secretary replied.

Yet by not putting up a candidate against Zac Goldsmith in the by-election, the Tories are what Margaret Thatcher used to call “frit”. They don’t want to split the Conservative vote, obviously.

And the Tories are right to be worried. The Liberal Democrats, who gave the Tories the jitters in David Cameron’s Witney constituency last week by slashing the former PM’s majority from 25,000 to 5,700, will turn the poll into a referendum on Brexit, not Heathrow.

The by-election could be as early as Thursday 1 December. The battle between the lobbyists and spinners for Heathrow and Gatwick, including George Pascoe Watson and Godric Smith, will go on long after that, possibly for many years.

And the fight will be just as bruising as those fiery football matches between Demon Eyes and the Press Gallery.

 

 

Jon Craig is chief political correspondent at Sky News

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