May and Johnson under pressure as Heathrow expansion vote looms

Pippa Crerar and Jessica Elgot
Greg Hands, whose constituency lies under the flightpath, announced he would step down so he could vote against the government’s plans for a third runway Photograph: Eddie Keogh/Reuters

Theresa May is facing a fresh crisis after her international trade minister quit in protest at the proposed expansion of Heathrow days before a crunch vote on the issue.

Greg Hands, whose constituency lies under the flightpath, announced he would step down so he could vote against the government’s plans for a third runway in the Commons on Monday.

The announcement increased the pressure on the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, another staunch critic of Heathrow expansion, to stand by his principles and vote against the government’s plans.

The prime minister confirmed on Thursday that Johnson was scheduled to be out of the country next week, allowing him to escape having to choose between resignation and rebelling against May.

Labour challenged Johnson to join Hands, the MP for Chelsea and Fulham, in opposing the plan, even if it cost him his cabinet role, suggesting he was weak for choosing to travel abroad just so that he could keep his job.

The proposed £14bn Heathrow expansion is almost certain to get the backing of the Commons. Conservative MPs have been told there is a three-line whip to vote in favour, while Labour has given its MPs a free vote.

May joked with reporters at a press conference on Thursday that her foreign secretary would be supporting “global Britain” in a different way.

“The government is absolutely committed to increasing airport capacity at Heathrow,” she said. “This is important, it is part of our future as global Britain and the ambitions we have as a trading nation for the future. And the foreign secretary, early next week, will be what I would describe as a living embodiment of global Britain.

“He will be out there showing the UK’s continued presence around the world and the work that the UK continues to do around the world, with our diplomacy, working on so many of the issues and the challenges that we face across the world today.”

The prime minister did not say where Johnson would be on Monday, and no further details were expected to be released for security reasons. Early suggestions that he may be attending a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg were ruled out when it emerged that Sir Alan Duncan, Johnson’s deputy, would attend instead.

Andy McDonald, the shadow transport secretary, said: “Greg Hands’s resignation piles the pressure on Boris Johnson, who promised his constituents he would ‘lie down in front of the bulldozers’ to stop a third runway. Instead he is jetting off on Monday to avoid the vote because he is too weak to stand by his promises.”

In his resignation letter to May, Hands said he was stepping down “with great regret” and promised he would “continue to be loyal” to the prime minister.

“I promised my constituents at the last general election that I would vote against should the matter come to parliament and I feel strongly that politicians must have credibility to ensure public confidence in our democratic system,” he said. “My reasons for opposing the third runway are well-known and well-documented.”

Hands hinted he felt unable to simply leave the country and miss the vote like the foreign secretary. “I intend to keep my promise to my constituents and vote against the proposal, and with it now being a whipped vote, I must therefore resign.”

In her reply to Hands, May said she understood the desire to fulfil his promise. She said the government was committed to expansion, but added: “I understand, however, that this is an issue which raises concerns for some of your constituents.”

The former transport secretary Justine Greening, a fierce opponent of Heathrow expansion, said she was “very sad” that Hands had been forced to quit. “It’s totally wrong that Conservative MPs are not allowed a free vote to represent their local longstanding concerns on Heathrow pollution,” she said.

“Other Conservative MPs have also voiced concerns to me about Heathrow expansion more broadly. If the secretary of state for transport was confident of his case he should allow a free vote. Because that’s not the case, the government has lost a very capable minister.”

May faced a further headache after Greening wrote to MPs on Thursday to warn them that regional airports across the north of England would lose more than 28,000 international flights a year by 2030 as a direct result of the expansion plans.

Doncaster would lose 25% of its international flights, Newcastle would lose 14%, Manchester and Leeds Bradford airports would each lose 11% and Liverpool would lose 7%, according to analysis of Department for Transport data.

“To use taxpayers’ money to support a private company to become more like a monopoly to grow and stifle competition everywhere else in the country seems nonsensical. To have a strategy that centres on London at the direct expense of connections for the rest of the country also seems wrong,” Greening wrote.

Labour MPs, especially those in northern England, have argued that the plans are crucial to connectivity from regional airports, and expansion is likely to be supported by the majority of SNP MPs for similar reasons.

Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, said that he would join legal action if MPs backed a third runway. “While I believe in a better Heathrow, I do not believe a bigger Heathrow is the right answer for London and I remain committed to opposing such a short-sighted decision,” he said. “There are no plans on how to deal with the valid concerns about Heathrow expansion.”

Last year, the mayor directed Transport for London to provide advice and assistance to affected borough councils including Hillingdon, Richmond, Wandsworth and Windsor and Maidenhead as they prepared for a joint legal challenge with Greenpeace against the Heathrow plan.

On Wednesday, Jeremy Corbyn said he would not whip Labour MPs to vote against the national policy statement, which contains the principles for the airport expansion plans, though Labour has said it does not meet the party’s four tests on issues such as air pollution and jobs.

Up to 100 Labour MPs and large trade unions are in favour of expansion but there is also likely to be significant opposition, including from Corbyn and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. Only a handful of Tory MPs are expected rebel, including Hands, Greening and Zac Goldsmith.

May has allowed ministers a “waiver” from collective responsibility on the policy. Ministers who oppose Heathrow, such as Johnson, have been permitted to express opposition but only to local media.

If the MPs approve the statement, the next stage is a public consultation and judicial review, after which the government can then give planning permission, known as a development consent order.