Zac Goldsmith has resigned as a Conservative MP over the government’s decision to back a third runway at Heathrow airport, describing it as the “most polluting, most disruptive, most expensive option”.
The Conservatives said they would not run against Goldsmith, who will stand as an independent in the byelection. But he will have to defend his seat against the Liberal Democrats, who will be eager for the chance to regain a foothold in south-west London.
In his resignation statement, Goldsmith said he had carried out his threat to cause a byelection because David Cameron had promised seven years ago to scrap the Conservative party’s support for further development of Heathrow with a “no ifs, no buts” pledge.
Speaking in his Richmond Park constituency, Goldsmith said: “My party’s promise mattered. It’s why my promise mattered. And it’s why so many people in our community feel so let down.
“I want to be clear: this is not the end. The government has chosen the most polluting, most disruptive, most expensive option. But it has also chosen the option with the least chance of being delivered. The sheer complexity, cost and legal difficulties mean it is unlikely ever to happen. It will be a millstone round this government’s neck for years.”
Goldsmith had a 28,000 majority at the last election and is popular locally. But the seat was held by the Lib Dems before 2010 and their vote only fell back sharply after 2015 as voters deserted the junior partners in the coalition government.
Earlier, Goldsmith told the House of Commons that Heathrow was “doomed” and would be a “millstone around the neck of the government”. The government hailed its plan to proceed with airport expansion as a sign of strength and decisiveness after years of delays. Theresa May told the cabinet it was a vital decision that had been ducked for too long. But she immediately faced a range of Conservative resistance after she decided to partially suspend cabinet responsibility to allow Boris Johnson and Justine Greening to express opposition to the plan once it was made public.
Protests and legal challenges are expected to focus on air quality, noise and Britain’s climate change commitments. The runway, which could be built by 2025, would lead to almost 50% more planes over London, bringing new neighbourhoods under the flightpath.
Ministers sought to mitigate some of these criticisms by proposing a six-and-a-half-hour break in scheduled night flights and more stringent night noise restrictions. The scheme will take the form of a draft national policy statement, open to consultation in the new year and subject to a vote in winter 2017-18.
Johnson immediately suggested in a television interview that the legal problems facing a third runway could prove insurmountable. “I think the day when the bulldozers actually appear is a long way off, if indeed they ever materialise to build that third runway,” he said.
“My view is the whole proceeding will be snarled up in legal objections of one kind or another and I just really repeat my point: do we want the greatest city on Earth, parts of it, to be transformed into a hell of airport noise? I don’t think we do. I think there are far better solutions. As long as I am able to, I am respectfully going to make that point.”
May also faces a probable legal challenge from four Conservative councils over the environmental and noise impact of the expansion, potentially aided by Sadiq Khan, the Labour mayor of London.
Heathrow conceded on Tuesday night that it may have to re-examine its plans for an extension under the M25, possibly replacing the tunnel with an elevated bridge, after it emerged that Highways England, the body in charge of Britain’s major roads, considered the scheme a major risk.
Highways England warned there was a “significant risk of cost overruns” in the M25 tunnel scheme, the bill for which it estimated would be betweeen £476m and £1.1bn. Correspondence released by the Department for Transport showed that the roads authority described the scheme as “high risk”, warning of a “a substantial risk of excessive customer frustration about what might be prolonged period of disruption”.
Simon Dudley, the leader of May’s own Conservative-held Windsor and Maidenhead council, said an application for a judicial review of the runway decision would happen “sooner rather than later”.
“Our campaign against Heathrow expansion with councils in Hillingdon, Richmond and Wandsworth, and Greenpeace, continues and we will take whatever action is necessary to stop this decision on behalf of the 1 million residents we represent,” he said.
Greening, the education secretary – who represents Putney in west London, called the decision extremely disappointing, while Adam Afriyie, the Tory MP for Windsor, suggested No 10 might change its mind during public consultation. Chris Grayling, the transport secretary, said it was a clear recommendation from the government that it had no intention of reversing.
Tania Mathias, Tory MP for the south-west London constituency of Twickenham, said: “I will continue to fight against Heathrow expansion and I agree with many experts ... who are certain that expansion will not happen. The scrutiny and consultation over the next year will, I am sure, show that a third runway is simply not possible for economic, legal and environmental reasons.”
Labour said it still needed “vital reassurances” before backing Heathrow, even though airport expansion was “much needed” for investment and growth.
The shadow transport secretary, Andy McDonald, said: “Labour has consistently been in favour of building an additional runway in the south-east of England. But this support has always been conditional on four tests being met: on capacity, climate change, noise and air quality and the wider national benefits. Today’s announcement, heralding another consultation, does not yet do that.”
The Conservatives said of the decision not to fight Goldsmith: “We disagree with Zac about the need for a byelection in light of this decision, but understand his position. He has been a hard-working champion for the people of Richmond Park – as we know he will continue to be if they re-elect him as their MP – so we will not be putting up a candidate against him.”
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