UK Politics

Delay over airport expansion 'pathetic' says Tory MP

Plane taking off from Heathrow Image copyright PA
Image caption The government says it hopes it will be able to make a decision by next summer

Zac Goldsmith cannot have a veto over airports policy, a Conservative MP has warned as the row within the party over Heathrow expansion escalated.

Crispin Blunt, the MP for Reigate near Gatwick, said the delay until next summer was "disgraceful vacillation" and an act of "political cowardice".

Mr Goldsmith denied "holding a gun" to David Cameron's head by promising to quit if Heathrow gets a new runway.

But the London mayoral candidate did speak to the PM before the decision.

The current London mayor Boris Johnson, who like Mr Goldsmith is against a third runway at Heathrow, said the government's claim the delay was needed to produce a new environmental plan was "a load of cobblers".

Quit threat

The Tory cabinet minister told BBC Radio 5 Live there was "an element of political fudgerama" to the decision, adding that a new Heathrow runway would be "an environmental catastrophe" and "it was getting clearer to people in government that this is undeliverable".

The government has delayed a decision over increasing airport capacity in the south of England, and the location of any new runway, until the second half of next year at the earliest.

Ministers say the delay is to allow further environmental tests to be done on the three main options under consideration - a new runway at Heathrow, a new runway at Gatwick and extending one of Heathrow's existing runways.

But critics say it is largely a political decision to avoid embarrassment to Mr Goldsmith and his party in the run-up to May's mayoral election.

Mr Goldsmith has promised to quit as MP for Richmond Park if the government approves a new runway, saying he will not go back on a commitment he made to his constituents before he was first elected to Parliament in 2010.

'No tip-off'

The MP told the BBC that "promises matter" in politics and that the government had made a "pragmatic" decision to take a new runway at Heathrow "off the menu" claiming it could never comply with air quality and noise pollution standards.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Mr Goldsmith says his promise to stand down would not apply if he was to become mayor

Mr Goldsmith revealed that he had had a meeting with the prime minister in the run-up to Thursday's decision but insisted that it was a "one-way conversation" and he "did not have any kind of tip-off".

"I took the opportunity, as you would expect me to do, to put my position very much on the agenda at the end of a much broader-ranging conversation," he told Daily Politics. "The prime minister did not respond to me in relation to Heathrow."

Mr Goldsmith described media reports that had given the PM an ultimatum as a "red herring" and while he said he may have mentioned his promise to stand down during the meeting, he insisted the commitment was not a new one and was never made in the "context of the mayoral campaign".

"My job as an MP and a mayoral candidate is to use every opportunity I have to talk to these people," he added.

"If through what I have done, I have managed to influence the debate, along with thousands of other residents, councillors, and other people, then so be it. I am not going to apologise for that. That's my job."

'Avoiding criticism'

But Mr Blunt, who is opposed to the expansion of Gatwick, attacked the government's "prevarication" and said there could be no justification for further delaying a decision after the independent Davies commission named a new runway at Heathrow as its preferred option.

"We were promised a decision by the end of the year," he said. "Recently we were promised a direction. What we have is neither decision, nor direction, but political cowardice, weakness and prevarication.

"People will see through this pathetic effort to avoid criticism in the run-up to the London mayoral election. Zac Goldsmith should not be allowed to exercise a veto over the national interest."

The Tories face a tough battle to hold onto City Hall next May, with their main opponent, Labour's Sadiq Khan, opposed to Heathrow expansion.

Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said any suggestion that a decision over Heathrow expansion had been put on the back burner to give Mr Goldsmith a better chance of succeeding Boris Johnson was "cynical".

"I believe that by the summer of next year we will be in a position to have done the extra work," he told Radio 4's Today programme. "The summer of next year would still allow us to get the extra capacity we need by 2030."

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