Britain’s most senior civil servant warned ministers not to speak out publicly over proposals to build a third runway at Heathrow before the Conservative party conference, it has been reported.
Sir Jeremy Heywood, the cabinet secretary, wrote to ministers in the runup to the party conference season to caution them about commenting in public on the issue, according to the BBC.
In his email, Heywood is said to have told them that while they could repeat statements made before the Airports Commission issued its final report in July, they should refrain from further comment.
His intervention would appear to reflect concerns that remarks by ministers could make the final decision vulnerable to a legal challenge.
Theresa May would not comment on the leak, but told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday that the story was a “mountain out of a molehill”.
The home secretary said it was correct that ministers should not be interfering in the decision on a third runway at Heathrow by making public comments.
The commission’s report – recommending the construction of a third runway – is highly controversial, with a number of ministers such as development secretary Justine Greening strongly opposed to the plan, as is the mayor of London, Boris Johnson.
Johnson, who is an MP but not a minister, did not refrain from commenting on Heathrow. He used his speech at the Conservative party conference to say: “If we are going to build new airport capacity, let’s not bodge it with one runway in the wrong place in a short-termist and environmentally disastrous solution.”
The government has said that it will deliver its formal response to the commission before Christmas.
However Labour MP Andy Slaughter, whose Hammersmith constituency lies under the Heathrow flight path, said it was “disgraceful” that ministers with constituencies directly affected by the decision were barred from speaking out.
“This is going to be subject, if Heathrow does get approval, to ligation over a number of years anyway. It is going to be judicially reviewed,” he told the Today programme.
“Cabinet ministers have been muzzled on this. I think it is disgraceful that they can’t speak up on behalf of their constituents.
“There is so much pressure coming from (Chancellor) George Osborne and others within the Government to go for Heathrow. I think that they just want to bulldoze the proposal through.”
Home Secretary Theresa May confirmed that ministers were avoiding public comment on the issue but defended the stance.
“This is an important decision and it is right that Cabinet ministers are not speaking about it publicly until the decision is taken,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“It is absolutely right that Cabinet ministers do not say anything that could prejudice the decision that is taken and lead to judicial review.”