Labour played down reports last night that Ed Miliband is set to abandon his opposition to a third runway at Heathrow, but he is under pressure from the shadow chancellor Ed Balls to be more supportive when the airports commission reports next week.
The prospect of political assent for a third or fourth runway at Heathrow however appeared to increase further, ahead of an interim report from commission chair Howard Davies which is set to announce a shortlist of options for expansion in the south-east.
Davies has promised to narrow the list of candidates for potential expansion, and according to one source an early draft had Heathrow at the centre of the commission’s thinking, with options for a third or fourth runway at the west London hub, and potentially additional capacity at Gatwick.
A parliamentary row has been brewing over claims that No 10 has pressured the commission into keeping a broader shortlist to avoid an early row focused on Heathrow. The commission was established to examine the vociferous claims of business and the aviation industry that extra airport capacity in the UK, and specifically London, was needed – but to report only after the 2015 general election.
A number of MPs in west London, led by Conservative Zac Goldsmith, believe the government is deliberately concealing its intentions.
Balls in a recent speech to the CBI said he would like to see the Davies Commission make recommendations before the general election.
The party’s previous shadow transport secretary, Maria Eagle, was shifted in the recent shadow cabinet reshuffle partly due to disagreements with Balls over HS2 and Heathrow.
Eagle’s replacement as shadow transport secretary, Mary Creagh, has tried to be non-committal towards Davies, saying: “No party can say now that it will implement its recommendations when we simply don’t know what the costs of any proposals will be. Obviously the Conservatives and Lib Dems haven’t made any such commitments.”
Labour would not rule any runway options in or out while the Davies commission was still deliberating, she added.
While Miliband was a minister in the last Labour government that approved plans for a third runway, his concerns were well established. At one point he threatened to resign as energy secretary if Heathrow was granted a third runway, citing the effect on carbon emissions, and as leader he ruled out the party standing by its former policy after the coalition scrapped the runway in 2010.
Labour declined to comment on the report of a new Labour willingness to accept extra airport capacity in the south-east.
Davies will announce the shortlist on 17 December.
The four-runway hub airport proposal to the east of London championed by mayor Boris Johnson – either in the Thames Estuary airport or at a revamped Stansted – was regarded as an expensive and unlikely choice, even before claims surfaced that it would be omitted from the shortlist. On Wednesday, the mayor vowed to keep fighting for his alternative, saying: “I have participated in this process in good faith, despite increasing concerns about its methodology. If only three options are left on the table, all beginning with the word Heathrow, that would be scandalous.”