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Theresa May gives ministers freedom to speak out against airport runway decision

Published 18/10/2016

The Government is to choose whether to expand airport capacity at Heathrow, pictured, or Gatwick
The Government is to choose whether to expand airport capacity at Heathrow, pictured, or Gatwick

Prime Minister Theresa May has moved to head off possible Cabinet resignations by giving ministers freedom to speak out against the Government's decision - due next week - on airport expansion in the south-east of England.

The highly unusual special arrangement will heighten speculation that the Government is poised to give its backing to a new runway at Heathrow, which has been fiercely opposed by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Education Secretary Justine Greening.

In a letter to ministers, Mrs May said that colleagues with long-standing views or constituency interests on the issue will be given an "exceptional and limited" freedom to criticise the decision of the Cabinet's airports sub-committee, though they will not be allowed to campaign against it or call into question the process by which it was reached.

The letter also confirmed that next week's choice between Heathrow and Gatwick as the Government's preferred option will be followed by a "full and fair" public consultation before a final decision is made.

That decision will then be put to the House of Commons for a vote in the winter of 2017/18.

Mrs May's letter followed a protracted debate lasting more than an hour at the regular Tuesday morning meeting of Cabinet.

The Prime Minister made clear that the choice on the Government's preferred option would be made not by the full Cabinet but by the airports sub-committee - on which neither Mr Johnson nor Ms Greening nor any other London MPs sit.

In a clear acknowledgement of the differences within Cabinet over Heathrow expansion, Mrs May's official spokeswoman later said that "a range of views" had been expressed by ministers.

Asked whether the special arrangement represented a bid by Mrs May to avoid resignations, the spokeswoman described it as "a mature, common-sense approach, recognising that this is a decision of strategic and national importance while acknowledging that some colleagues have strongly-held views on the issues and in some cases have constituency interests".

The spokeswoman was unable to say how long the suspension of collective responsibility on the issue would last, or whether Conservative MPs will be given a free vote when the question finally comes before Parliament.

One Conservative MP, the environmentalist and failed mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith, has already signalled his intention to resign and force a by-election in his west London seat of Richmond Park if the Government gives its backing to a third runway at Heathrow.

In her letter, Mrs May told ministers that they would be free to speak out only if they have "previously expressed strong opinions or... have a directly affected constituency" and have sought her approval.

"This special derogation from the normal rules of collective responsibility will also be subject to a number of important caveats," said the Prime Minister. "No minister will be permitted to campaign actively against the Government's position, nor publicly criticise or call into question the decision-making process itself. Ministers will not be permitted to speak against the Government in the House."

Mrs May said she did not want to put colleagues with a long record of opposing an airport scheme in an "uncomfortable position", but added that all of them "must respect the outcome of the decision-making process".

She told ministers that a decision on increasing airport capacity in the south east had been "delayed for too long" and that it was important to now take a decision "in the national interest", her spokeswoman told reporters at a regular Westminster media briefing.

Additional capacity would be a boost for UK business and competitiveness regardless of the scheme that the Government chooses, the PM said.

The Economic and Industrial Strategy (Airports) Sub-Committee, which is due to meet next week to consider the Airports Commission recommendations, is chaired by Mrs May, whose Maidenhead seat in Berkshire is close to Heathrow.

Also on the committee are Chancellor Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge), Transport Secretary Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell), Business Secretary Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells), Communities Secretary Sajid Javid (Bromsgrove), Scotland Secretary David Mundell (Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale), Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom (South Northamptonshire), Chief Whip Gavin Williamson (South Staffordshire) and Conservative Party chairman Sir Patrick McLoughlin (Derbyshire Dales).

Asked why there was no London MP on the committee, Mrs May's spokeswoman said: "This is about national infrastructure.

"One of the things that came through in the discussion was the importance of this for regions across the UK and making sure that, as we take a national infrastructure decision, we take it on the basis of creating a country that works for everyone."

Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said : "The Conservative Party made a 'No ifs, no buts' promise to people in west London. Waiving collective responsibility to save the hides of a couple of ministers will not fly. People will remember this and hold the Tories to account for their actions."

Richard Burden, shadow transport minister, said: "Downing Street's memo proves once again that ministers are more concerned about managing divisions in the Conservative Party than tackling the vital issue of airport capacity.

"There are differences of views in all parties on the Heathrow/Gatwick issue. We have all known that for years. But if the Cabinet are now going to be allowed to go their separate ways on this, why could they not have decided to do that a year ago? It should never have been an excuse for delay after delay.

"If ministers had grasped this nettle this time last year, we could have been much further down the line on implementing a decision by now. As it is, uncertainty has reigned and the UK as a whole has been the loser."

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