Liberal Democrats in Brighton vote against airport expansion

Nick Clegg in Brighton Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Nick Clegg said the Liberal Democrats were absolutely against a third runway at Heathrow Airport

Liberal Democrats are gathered in Brighton for the party's annual autumn conference.

Nick Clegg is trying to draw a line under his apology over student tuition fees. Speaking to me ahead of conference I asked about one of the biggest issues affecting the South East - aviation capacity.

Currently the coalition agreement between the Tories and Liberal Democrats has ruled out the consideration of new runways at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted until after the election.

Mr Clegg told me that the Liberal Democrats were absolutely against a third runway at Heathrow but, interestingly, he did not rule out other options.

'Big debate'

While he said he "was not persuaded by a Thames Estuary airport" he said he would wait for the findings of the independent commission set up to look at aviation strategy which is not due to publish its findings until 2015 - after the next general election.

So, is that a sign that the deputy prime minister is softening in his personal position on aviation?

Earlier this month he told the Today programme: "Just because we are sticking to the coalition agreement and manifesto doesn't mean we are sticking our heads in the sand. There is this big debate about how you ensure we have the so-called hub capacity".

And he reiterated that to me.

If that's the case his fellow MPs and delegates sent him a clear message from conference following a debate on aviation in Brighton. They voted overwhelmingly in favour of a motion rejecting new runways at Heathrow, Stansted or Gatwick.

After the vote I spoke to the Transport Minister and Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes Norman Baker.

Boris Island

Image copyright Stefan Rousseau/PA
Image caption Nick Clegg has tried to draw a line under his apology over student tuition fees

He said the party had spoken in terms of their policy ahead of the next election. He denied the vote put the party at odds with its leader on this issue.

Mr Baker said the Liberal Democrats were clear in their position - they were against any new runways at Heathrow, Gatwick or Stansted.

He also said he thought the idea of a Boris Island airport in the Thames Estuary was "a bit mad".

Apart from the enormous cost he said there were major environmental issue to consider as well as the positioning of the SS Montgomery which would blow any airport out of the water.

He also expressed disappointment that Justine Greening and Theresa Villiers, who had both been opposed to a third runway at Heathrow, were moved from the Department of Transport in the reshuffle.

So the message from the Transport Minister is clear - there is no change in Liberal Democrat policy and the party remains against aviation expansion.

But the message from Nick Clegg was not quite so clear cut - he said he would wait for the commission's findings and look at all the options.

Let's hope he's not forced into making another apology for a promise he can't keep.

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