A dead apple tree in a field to the west of London is a forlorn reminder of David Cameron’s once-passionate resistance to Heathrow’s expansion.
In the run-up to the 2010 general election, the Conservative leader of the opposition said he would fight the third runway, “no ifs, no buts”. That promise has come back to haunt Mr Cameron, now prime minister, after the Davies commission recommended Heathrow for a new runway in the southeast.
The review was designed to take the politics out of aviation policy with a hard-headed look at the different options for new runways. For three years, the process neutralised the political debate — but no longer.
Mr Cameron knows expanding Heathrow would be hugely controversial and would require the expenditure of vast amounts of political capital. Six years ago he was one of a host of celebrities and politicians to buy stakes of land in a field bought by Greenpeace, in the middle of the proposed third runway at Sipson.
Now the field is overrun with thistles and weeds and the land — which was only on a short-term lease — has been sold back to a local landlord. Wooden plaques marking the trees were thrown away.
Mr Cameron made his pledge as he sought to modernise the Conservative party with his “Vote Blue, Go Green” agenda. Since then he has been remarkably quiet about the specifics of Heathrow, having exchanged environmental platitudes for a heavy focus on economic growth and the “global race”.
Yet he is aware that throwing his weight behind the third runway would represent a remarkable personal U-turn.
Some senior Tories have publicly shifted their position over the project; most notably, George Osborne, the chancellor, wants to push ahead with the third runway. Business leaders overwhelming prefer it to the Gatwick option.
Yet Mr Cameron is surrounded by high-profile colleagues who have pledged to fight the Heathrow scheme as vocally as they can.
Some of that resistance disappeared on election night when the Lib Dems, who had opposed the building of any new runway in the southeast, lost most of their MPs. Among the casualties was Vince Cable, MP for Twickenham, who had led protests against Heathrow expansion.
Meanwhile Ed Miliband, who once threatened to quit Gordon Brown’s cabinet over an earlier incarnation of the Heathrow plan, is no longer leader of the opposition. Michael Dugher, now shadow transport secretary, is broadly supportive of the runway.
But major Tory opponents remain, including cabinet ministers Philip Hammond, Theresa May, Greg Hands and Justine Greening.
Zac Goldsmith, whose prosperous Richmond constituency lies under the airport’s flight path, has promised a million-strong army of protesters to oppose the scheme.
Mr Goldsmith, the favourite to stand as the Conservative candidate to be London’s next mayor, has urged Mr Cameron to ignore the Davies findings.
Boris Johnson, the current mayor, is almost as vociferously opposed, having promised to throw himself beneath the bulldozers if and when construction begins. His idea of a new airport in the Thames estuary was rejected by the commission.
The Davies commission recommendation will in theory give the government strong factual backing for one of the most contentious political decisions of the decade. But ministers have never made a commitment to implementing the Davies recommendations, leaving room for them to proceed with an alternative — or to do nothing at all.
Some senior Tories still believe the government can pursue the Gatwick option, despite the commission preferring Heathrow, because political opposition is more low-key. A handful of Sussex MPs oppose a second runway at Gatwick but few of them are household names. Furthermore, the population density around Heathrow is far greater, giving much greater clout to opposition groups.
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