Labour MPs plan Heathrow revolt

21.12.2008   (Observer)

Cross-party plot to force vote on new runway

by Toby Helm, Whitehall editor

MPs opposed to construction of a third runway at Heathrow are planning a massive cross-party revolt in the new year in a final effort
to halt the project, the Observer can reveal.

Plans are being formed to force a vote in parliament – against Prime Minister
Gordon Brown’s wishes – in which dozens of Labour rebels would join the Tories
and Liberal Democrats to oppose the plan. A defeat for Brown in the Commons would
not in itself kill off the proposals as they can be approved by the prime minister
and his ministers without legislation. However, such a large “no” vote would send
the clearest message that the expansion was being pushed through, despite huge
public opposition and concern about potential damage to the environment.

A Commons motion calling for a vote in parliament and opposing expansion was
signed by 106 MPs – including more than 50 Labour members – within 24 hours of
being tabled last week by Martin Salter, the Labour member for Reading West. But
Opposition politicians intend to go further, staging a “showdown” Commons vote
in the new year.       [ EDM 339 ].

Last night, Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat transport spokesman, said the plan was to force a vote during an opposition day debate:
 “The Liberal Democrats forced a vote on the issue earlier this year, but the
Tories abstained then.   Now, their policy is to oppose expansion and I look forward
to having their support as well as Labour rebels and other parties.”

On Friday, Brown gave his clearest signal to date that the cabinet – despite
being split over the issue – will approve the runway when a final decision is
arrived at in late January.

“We are making the investment in transport to ensure our infrastructure is fit
for the needs of the 21st century, including a decision on the third runway at
Heathrow,” he said.

His comments suggested that he was ready to overrule cabinet “sceptics”, among
them Hilary Benn, the environment secretary, who has said that the government
“cannot contemplate” going ahead unless it meets EU environment standards.

Others said to have serious doubts include Harriet Harman, the leader of the
house and Labour’s deputy leader, and John Denham, the cabinet minister responsible
for innovation. Those in favour are said to include Lord Mandelson, the business
secretary, and Geoff Hoon, the transport secretary.

Brown wants to push ahead with the runway, believing it is the kind of infrastructure
project that will ensure the UK has an economy capable of taking the opportunities
of recovery when they come. Opponents argue that the runway would increase in
noise pollution and emissions of nitrogen dioxide and particulates. Many Labour
MPs in marginal seats in the London area are worried that approval of the plans
will endanger their chances at the next general election.

Salter said: “I hope we can avoid having a vote and that we have persuaded the
government to change its mind and recognise that the strict environmental preconditions
set down in our own election manifesto cannot be met.   If not, I think it is inconceivable
that this matter will not end up in the House of Commons in votable form.”

His motion notes that Heathrow is “already in breach of the European Air Quality
Directive to be implemented by 2010” and demands a vote to show the level of opposition
among MPs. Theresa Villiers, the Tory transport spokesman, said: “It is time the
government started listening to common sense.”