Westminster watch: Heathrow and the Scottish play

Will the SNP become kingmaker in the runway debate and what will be the price of their support?

As we move into the final months of official campaigning over the additional runway in the south east (it won’t really be the end, of course – the decision will just trigger a new round of reviews and politicking), it’s odd that the critical contribution could come from north of the border. The fate of Heathrow and Gatwick could well depend on where the SNP bloc lends its weight – and doesn’t the party know it.

A few months ago there would have been cast-iron certainty among Heathrow supporters: that a slam-dunk of an Airports Commission report and a pro-Heathrow bent among the majority of Conservative and Labour MPs meant they’d have the votes when it counted. Things have changed a bit.

Yes, the Conservative Party is brewing up a pretty significant row over Heathrow/Gatwick, but that’s been priced into the equations for some time. It is the advent of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Opposition, his right hand man being John McDonnell (the arch-Heathrow nimby) and the prospect of official Labour policy being anti-Heathrow that has dropped a sizeable dollop of uncertainty into the mix.

Of course, Corbyn’s policy on Heathrow is likely to be ignored by much of the Parliamentary Labour Party – northern Labour MPs, in particular, will be furious with such a volte-face, and I have recently been privy to a London Labour MP who indicated that the first act of rebellion will, in all likelihood, be voting in support of Heathrow. But we can’t be 100 per cent sure. Most Labour MPs are pro-Heathrow expansion, but how many care that much to defy the party whip?

This matters – not because a vote on Heathrow would be lost, but because it wouldn’t be won in a convincing enough manner. Prime Minister David Cameron is going to cop a lot of flak for a pro-Heathrow decision and knows it will trigger a schism in his party. It is likely that he wants to smash through the 400 mark in any Commons vote so that he can legitimately say the scheme is backed overwhelmingly by MPs.

All this means that the 56 SNP MPs attain a potentially critical role, and a desperate courtship of this bloc has begun. Heathrow has been making its play on the amount of jobs that would be created in Scotland, and on case studies of Aberdeen’s reliance on hub connections to connect to the headquarters of the top oil firms. But the SNP has been clear it is money that talks.

It is looking for the best deal it can get for Scotland out of this. Alex Salmond MP, now being vocal in Westminster again, has been shouting that the party will be looking for any public investment on associated infrastructure to trigger an additional Barnett Formula contribution to Scottish coffers (around £500 million, according to the SNP). In addition, it is looking for guarantees about extra Scottish flights and no domestic routes being dropped should there be a capacity squeeze in the future.

It’s all pretty brazen. The SNP knows its value and the party wants its supporters to see it throwing its weight around. Heathrow knows there is a deal to be cut and is actively pursuing it. But the opposition can see this too, and is already claiming that SNP support for what it regards a local issue would be a constitutional affront.

There is an old adage about political decisions being like sausages: it is better not to see them being made. That is particularly apt in this case, because it’s going to be messy.

Gareth Morgan is a political lobbyist and director with Cavendish Communications (cavendishpc.co.uk). He is an advisor to the Guild of Travel Management Companies (GTMC)

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