Labour was embroiled in its own row over airport expansion on Saturday night as the party’s candidate to be London mayor, Sadiq Khan, called on Jeremy Corbyn to rule out a third runway at Heathrow once and for all and back expansion of Gatwick airport as official party policy.
In a move designed to differentiate his campaign for the mayoralty from the policies of Corbyn and his leadership, Khan told the Observer that Gatwick was clearly the “only viable option” and that further development at Heathrow would be “disastrous and undeliverable”.
Khan called for a clear line from Corbyn after the party’s transport spokeswoman, Lilian Greenwood, appeared to sit on the fence after the government again delayed a decision on how and where to expand airport capacity in the south-east of England.
With the Tories in disarray over their own approach, Greenwood caused dismay among Labour MPs by saying the party could not take a view on whether to back a recommendation to expand Heathrow – contained in a report for the government by former CBI chief Howard Davies – until the government had made its own position clear.
Khan, who has changed his view since pitching for the job as mayor, said it was now time to ditch Heathrow and throw support behind Gatwick. “Gatwick can expand without the devastating environmental impact of a third runway at Heathrow, while bringing huge economic benefits and being more affordable and deliverable,” said Khan.
The former shadow justice secretary added: “I’m calling on David Cameron, Zac Goldsmith and my colleagues in the Labour party – Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell – to get behind Gatwick now. It’s the only viable solution to this problem.”
On Friday business leaders, led by the Confederation of British Industry, reacted with fury after ministers announced a further delay on where to expand capacity, having promised a final decision on what to do by the end of the year. Ministers said a further study was needed on the environmental impact of Heathrow expansion, and sowed further doubts by saying only that they “hoped” to make a decision some time next year.
The CBI said the latest stalling – seen as a move to prevent the issue harming the party ahead of the mayoral election in May – was “deeply disappointing”, while the British Chambers of Commerce said ministers, including Cameron, had been “gutless”.
However, with the Tories on the back foot and divided, Labour was no clearer, merely criticising the government for prevaricating.
Corbyn and John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor whose Hayes and Harlington constituency includes Heathrow, have both said Gatwick is preferable to Heathrow, but have not made that a firm party line. McDonnell has campaigned against Heathrow and has said he is uncertain whether any new runway is needed in the south-east at all.
Khan, by contrast, said the need for expansion was urgent. “David Cameron has shown a complete lack of backbone. The government could have taken a big step towards meeting the urgent need for new aviation capacity by giving Gatwick the go-ahead,” he said. “I’m glad the government seems to be backing away from Heathrow, which would be disastrous for Londoners and undeliverable, but ministers failed to rule it out and get on with Gatwick instead.”
On Friday Angela Eagle, the shadow business secretary, said: “Labour have long argued the need for greater certainty and long-termism, both from government and business; it’s why we had committed to setting up a national infrastructure commission. But the Tories are failing to keep their end of the bargain and Cameron has broken his pledge to make a decision by the end of the year. Delaying the process shows the Tories are putting a self-interested political timetable ahead of the national interest.”
It is understood that the latest delay was influenced by growing concern in Whitehall about the costs of building a third runway at Heathrow and improving transport links, as well as worries about environmental blight. Transport for London has said it would cost at least £20bn to build new infrastructure, including road, rail and underground links. The leaders of Croydon, Kingston, Southwark and Wandsworth councils have said that with deep cuts to their budgets in the pipeline, they would have to sacrifice other major infrastructure upgrades.
Labour MPs had hoped to be able to exploit deep Tory divisions over the issues. Goldsmith, MP for Richmond Park, has said he would step down from his Commons seat and force a byelection if Heathrow were chosen. Last month almost 30 Labour MPs with seats in the north of England united to back Heathrow expansion, saying it would help the national economy.
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