I WAS genuinely surprised when Theresa Villiers confirmed during her party’s conference that the Conservatives would oppose a third runway at Heathrow.
Surprised because this is one promise that simply won’t be kept, and she should know that; and because it flies in the face of Cameron’s valiant efforts to depict his party as serious about government.
Over at Conservative Home today, Theresa has been defending her policy, presumably in part a response to her own backbench colleague, David Wilshire, who used the same site to blast the policy earlier this week. I’ve spoken to one senior Tory front bencher who shares my utter bemusement at this policy and I doubt if he is alone.
Certainly the Tories’ traditional core constituency, business leaders, are appalled by Villiers’ suggestion that the need for a third runway could be offset by the building of a new high-speed rail network. High-speed rail will, I’m sure, have an important part to play in this country’s transport strategy in the future. But to claim that it will obviate the need for more runway capacity at Heathrow is over-optimistic at best, self-delusional at worst.
How could high-speed trains reduce demand for international travel? In fact, while Heathrow operates at 99 per cent capacity at the moment, best estimates suggest the kind of high-speed network now advocated by the Tories could reduce that by just two per cent.
An expanded Heathrow is necessary because without it, international travellers will vote with their executive club cards and turn their backs, not just on Heathrow, but on UK plc. We will not be able to maintain London’s position as Europe’s financial capital while our biggest and most important airport is choking to death.
But the policy would claim another victim which has so far been ignored: Crossrail.
Crossrail, due to open in 2017, will provide a new commuter link between Maidenhead and Heathrow to the west of London to the City of London and onwards to Kent in the east. It is not only essential to the economic prosperity of London and the rest of the country – it is also very, very expensive. It will cost more than £15 billion, with the taxpayer meeting about a third of the cost and the remaining two thirds being met through a supplement on London’s business rates and by contributions from the capital’s financial institutions, who see the new link as vital to their future prosperity.
The financial package is robust, though inevitably there are those who remain unconvinced. But how robust will the package be if the airport to which Crossrail will provide a vital link is to be left to wither on the vine? How much value will Crossrail itself add to London if Heathrow cannot expand and cannot compete? And how willing will the City be to pay for a link to Yesterday’s Airport?
The real motivation behind this Tory transport policy – one of the few that the front bench team have come up with after Ms Villers’ 18 months in charge – is votes. Or more specifically, a clutch of marginal seats to the west of London that the Tories need to win in order to have a chance of forming the next government.
What a handicap for any new government to have to carry in its first months in power: a manifesto commitment to eroding a central pillar of our economic success, a commitment which would have serious – possibly terminal – consequences for the most ambitious and expensive rail scheme since the end of the war.
Which is why it’s a promise that simply won’t find its way into the Tory manifesto at the next election. Because to include it would be to invite the (justified) accusation that Cameron isn’t serious about growing the UK economy.
But if this policy is to be ditched, it’s surely very likely that a new policy will have to be developed and promoted by a new Shadow Transport Secretary.