Heathrow expansion Brexit's close ally

Editorial | Mary Ma 27 Jun 2018

British Prime Minister Theresa May won a vote she desperately needed at a time when her Brexit negotiations yielded no great news.

The vote endorsing a third runway at London's Heathrow Airport was the kind of triumph May hadn't tasted since she lost the Conservative Party's parliamentary majority in the general election she unwisely called last year.

The controversial plan to build a new runway to the northwest of Heathrow was approved by a stunning majority of 415 to 119. Such a large margin will make it all the more difficult for opponents to challenge the development in court.

One person was conspicuously missing during the vote, however: Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson?

Everybody knows Johnson has been a vocal opponent of the third runway. As the mayor of London, he favored developing an aviation hub at the Thames Estuary instead of expanding Heathrow.

So, where was he when the MPs voted? At his office next the St James's Park? Nah! He was in Kabul, the Afghan capital.

No wonder he was mocked by other MPs for flying to an unlikely destination to avoid the embarrassment of having to vote for the airport expansion. It might have been an escape, but it could just as easily be a compromise reached with May.

The hearsay has it that Johnson was in Kabul discussing a British plan to send more troops to war-torn Afghanistan to train local recruits. If this was the case, I wonder if it would have been more appropriate for Johnson's defense colleague Gavin Williamson to go.

Johnson should be more than pleased to go to spare himself from the embarrassing vote. May would also have been more than happy to send him overseas, because she knew the former mayor would be politically damaged for missing the crucial vote and thus be less of a threat to her - bearing in mind that Johnson is an icon among hard Brexiters, who are increasingly skeptical about May.

Passage of the expansion was expected, but never by a margin as large as eventuated in the final vote. Perhaps the honorable members of parliament were worried about the prospect of job losses after Brexit.

During the debate, the government promised 100,000 jobs would be created - 40,000 more than the original estimate made years ago. Was it magical? Surely, 100,000 was a more politically correct figure than 60,000 at a time of uncertainty.

A major argument for a third runway had been that it would strengthen Heathrow's connectivity to the rest of Europe so that international flights from around the globe would keep flying passengers to London, from where they could transit to other European cities. Otherwise, additional flights would be lost to Britain's European competitors.

That was the argument put forward when Brexit wasn't even contemplated.

Now, it's argued that following Brexit, a third runway would be more needed than ever, because Britain would have to strengthen its connectivity to the rest of the world, as it seeks to develop international trading relationships.

Whatever the argument, the expansion is given the green light. But Brexit will continue to be a hangover factor.

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