Government aide quits to join rebels on eve of Commons vote on Heathrow expansion

28.1.2009   (Guardian)

by Allegra Stratton, political correspondent

• MP says ‘quality of life’ issue is reason for decision

• Anti-runway lobby seizes chance to register dissent

A government aide has resigned in protest at the decision to expand Heathrow.    In an interview with the Guardian, Andrew Slaughter, parliamentary private secretary to the Foreign Office minister Lord Malloch-Brown, said he had resigned to be able to vote with the Conservatives in the Commons
today against plans to go ahead with the £9bn expansion, which will see the number
of flights increase from 480,000 to about 605,000 a year.

The government would not give the Commons a vote on the issue, but the Tories
have used parliamentary privilege to table an opposition day debate today.

Yesterday Labour and Conservative sources indicated that they did not expect
the government to be defeated.

However, the resignation of Slaughter – whose west London constituency will be
irrevocably changed by the Heathrow expansion – and the likely scale of any rebellion
will illustrate the fragile nature of the support for the policy.

Former minister Lord Smith, chairman of the Environment Agency, who is known
to oppose the third runway on environmental grounds, said yesterday that he believed
the coalition of Tory, Liberal Democrat and environmentalists’ opposition meant
there was a “very big chance” the third runway at Heathrow would never go ahead.

The government approved the project despite deep unhappiness at cabinet level
and on its own backbenches, and despite the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats
positioning themselves against the policy.   Though today’s vote is non-binding, it is the first opportunity for those opposed
to the move to register the scale of dissent.

Government sources have said that the unlikely prospect of its being defeated
in any opposition day debate had played a part in the decision to expand Heathrow,
with government whips visibly canvassing Labour backbench voting intentions during
the statement made by the transport secretary, Geoff Hoon, on 15 January.

Explaining his decision to step down from the PPS position he has held since
Gordon Brown became prime minister in June 2007, Slaughter, MP for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush, told the Guardian:   “It’s a quality of life issue – they are effectively building
a new airport with its flight path over my constituents in west London, who are
currently not troubled by aircraft noise. There are other issues, both local and
national.   For one, I doubt the surface transport network will cope.”

Slaughter had been due to resign at the time the government announced its intention
to push ahead with the third runway, but was persuaded not to by the prime minister,
who personally assured him he would supply the MP with further information on
behalf of his constituents.

Ministers concerned about the effect that expansion could have on environmental
targets squeezed concessions from the government, with the eventual package including
an initial cap on additional flights from the new runway at 125,000 a year and
a pledge that any new slots after that point would be “green slots”, allocated
only to airlines which use the newest, least-polluting aircraft. There would also
be a new target that aircraft emissions would be lower in 2050 than in 2005.

Yesterday, Labour rebels and Conservatives accepted that the government was unlikely
to be defeated. Some Labour MPs once opposed to the expansion have been won round
by the government’s eventual package and by personal conversations with the prime
minister and cabinet ministers.

One rebel said: “I would be disappointed if we didn’t get 30 and pleased if we
got 40. Three to four Tories will vote against their party but the Ulster Unionists
won’t bother, so the government will not be defeated.”

Tories David Wilshire and Ian Taylor are likely to vote against their party and
with the government.

In a reflection of the cross-department tension, Hoon will open proceedings for
the government today but
climate change secretary Ed Miliband will wrap up the debate.

A number of MPs yesterday complained to the Commons authorities about the “email
bombing” of MPs by Greenpeace. The Labour MP David Taylor protested and the Speaker,
Michael Martin, called it a “serious matter”.

One Labour rebel said: “Greenpeace hasn’t helped swell our ranks. Now a couple
of people are using it as an excuse.”