PLMR consultant Hugo Forshaw considers the political significance of Heathrow expansion for the May government.
Upon being appointed Prime Minister this summer, Theresa May set about defining the key objectives of her government. ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and ‘a country that works for everyone’ were the soundbites of her new regime; yet amidst the fanfare one integral element of her agenda slipped by almost without much notice outside of Westminster.
Shortly after moving into Number 10 the Prime Minister announced her commitment to a ‘proper industrial strategy’, signalling her intention to support and promote key industries through a government-led industrial policy.
Theresa May’s industrial strategy is inextricably linked to her vision for Brexit: in order to make a success of life outside the EU Britain needs to show itself to be dynamic, forward-thinking and open for business. Through use of policy the government will promote those industries that will be of particular strategic value to post-Brexit Britain.
But investment in businesses is not enough. Britain needs prestige projects – projects with real PR value that can project an image of Britain as a vibrant, dynamic economy, and crucially as a place for investment.
That is why, after an initial delay, the Hinkley Point nuclear power plant was eventually approved. It is also why expansion at Heathrow is of great importance to this government. Not only do these schemes deliver tangible economic benefits, they also carry the prestige necessary to substantiate Number 10’s claim that Britain has the capability to emerge from Brexit stronger and more prosperous than before.
May’s plans for an expansion of capacity at Heathrow are, however, under attack. Airport capacity has long been a divisive issue within her party and within the cabinet, and the months ahead will almost certainly see numerous legal challenges and popular campaigns against the proposal.
Faced with such strong opposition, many believe the Prime Minister cannot afford to back down. Delivering essential – if controversial – infrastructural improvements such as this will be a key metric of the success of her industrial strategy, and ultimately of her vision for Brexit.
Britain needs increased airport capacity in the South-East for more than just the tangible economic benefits it will bring; airport expansion is also integral to boosting the UK’s global image and inspiring business confidence in the country’s post-Brexit prospects. It is the gravitas of projects such as this that Britain needs in order to stand out from the crowd and persuade businesses, both domestic and international, that they have a bright future in Brexit Britain.
Should May’s plans for Heathrow expansion be defeated, a shadow of doubt will be cast over her promise of a successful Brexit, and fears will be raised that her much-vaunted industrial strategy may not deliver the economic impetus needed to maintain the vitality of British industry outside of the European Union
With further fights no doubt in store over HS2, May must win the argument on Heathrow or face failure to deliver on her promise of a successful Brexit.