Government survives Heathrow vote despite backbench rebellion

A Tory motion urging a rethink on the expansion of Heathrow airport failed. But the vote saw the largest rebellion by Labour MPs an opposition motion since the party took power in 1997.

The government defeated an opposition vote on the expansion of Heathrow airport after several Labour MPs who had previously spoken against the scheme toed the party line. The Conservatives tabled the Opposition Day Motion when the government denied MPs a vote on the issue when making its decision.

The wide-ranging motion urged the government to rethink its support for a third runway at Heathrow (ENDS Report 408, pp 6-7 ), "give full consideration to alternative solutions" and demanded a national policy statement on airports and high-speed rail.

It also called the consultation process into question, particularly the government’s reliance on data supplied by BAA in assessing the case for expansion.

The wording was lifted verbatim from an Early Day Motion (EDM) tabled by Liberal Democrat MP John Grogan last year, which was signed by 167 MPs, including 57 from Labour. Mr Grogan, who supported the Tory motion, pleaded with MPs not to vote against it just because it had been tabled by the Conservatives. "Long may it be remembered in this House that there are no Conservative lobbies and no Labour lobbies: there is an aye lobby and a no lobby."

However, shadow transport secretary Teresa Villiers undermined the motion when she said: "We do not rule out the possibility of airport expansion in the south-east." This immediately led to claims that the "alternative solutions" meant expanding other airports in the south-east.

Emily Thornberry (Lab: Islington South and Finsbury), who had signed the EDM, said she believed that the Tories supported London mayor Boris Johnson’s idea of a Thames Estuary airport. She said they must be "stark staring bonkers" if they thought she would support this.

Clive Efford (Lab: Eltham), also held this view. He said: "The motion says no to a third runway at Heathrow, but let us look at all the other options. Right across the south-east now, anyone who lives near an airport might have the Tories coming down their way to expand that airport. That is what the motion says." He said the Tories were in a "schism" over airport development and gave this as his reason for not supporting the motion, despite his opposition to airport expansion.

Six west London MPs voted against the motion, including Ann Keen (Lab: Brentford and Isleworth), who is also a health minister. MP Alan Keen (Lab: Feltham and Heston) also refused to back it, condemning the motion as "party politicking" by the Tories. He added that he was encouraged by the government’s decision on mixed mode, saying: "That was the first concession ever made by any government against BAA’s wishes."

Ten west London MPs voted for it, including Virendra Sharma (Lab: Ealing Southall) and Andrew Slaughter (Lab: Ealing Acton and Shepherd’s Bush). Both resigned from government posts in protest at the government’s stance on Heathrow. Andrew Slaughter had been parliamentary private secretary to Mark Malloch Brown at the Foreign Office. Virendra Sharma had been parliamentary private secretary to the Minister of State at the Treasury and Home Office, Phil Woolas. This is thought to be Mr Sharma’s first rebellion against the government.

But it was a close call. The government defeated the motion by a narrow margin - 297 votes to 278, with 28 Labour MPs rebelling against the government in the vote. This was the largest rebellion on an opposition motion since Labour took power in 1997.

Former Labour environment ministers Michael Meacher, Nick Raynsford and Chris Mullin voted against the government, as did present and past shadow environment ministers Peter Ainsworth, Norman Baker, Tim Farron, Tim Yeo, Steve Webb, John Gummer, Chris Huhne, Simon Hughes and Nick Herbert. Former environment minister Elliot Morley bucked the trend and voted with the government.

Energy and climate secretary Ed Miliband spoke in favour of a third runway and sixth terminal at Heathrow, despite having argued against the expansion in inter-departmental negotiations and Cabinet talks preceding the decision.

He said aviation could not bear as big a burden as other sectors in meeting the UK’s target to cut CO2 by 80% by 2050. "An 80% cut in aviation would mean going back to 1974 levels of flying," he said. "For the first time we are saying that aviation expansion is conditional on improvements and reductions in carbon emissions."

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