Any other business

A free vote on the Heathrow runway? Don’t be so wet, Prime Minister

24 September 2016

9:00 AM

24 September 2016

9:00 AM

Hinkley Point — for all its flaws and the whiffs of suspicion around its Chinese investors — has finally received Downing Street’s blessing. Meanwhile, ministers hold the party line that High Speed 2 will go ahead according to plan, backed by news that the project has already bought £2 billion worth of land; and investors hunt for shares in the construction sector that might benefit from the multi-billion-pound infrastructure spree widely expected in Chancellor Philip Hammond’s autumn statement. But still no decision on a new airport runway for London — the one piece of digger work, short of tunnelling under the Atlantic, that would signal Britain’s raging post-Brexit appetite for global business.

Everything still points to Heathrow, where the two rival expansion schemes — the one proposed by the airport’s owner and the unfunded Heathrow Hub alternative (which Rory Sutherland discusses on p. 69) — have been competing to cut their proposal costs by offering, in effect, lower-quality solutions. As for the impact of-Brexit, Heathrow’s advocates have been pointing out that their airport handles a vastly larger proportion of non-EU exports than its Gatwick rival. They can also now argue that Heathrow’s breach of EU air-quality standards will cease to matter once west Londoners are breathing free British air, however toxic.

But the latest leak from Downing Street — in a document carried by a civil servant on the Underground and filmed by a fellow passenger — suggests Theresa May is considering giving MPs a free vote on the issue in order to appease Boris Johnson (who last week said Heathrow expansion should be ‘consigned to the dustbin’) and duck a potential cabinet split. Such pusillanimity would damage the ‘Iron Lady II’ image the Prime Minister has cultivated, without guaranteeing the result her advisers prefer. She should cut the crap and take her lead from London mayor Sadiq Khan, who said this week: ‘No more delays… Gatwick’s ready to go. Let’s get on with it.’

Big tech, little tech

A curious intervention by Matt Brittin — the Google chief for Europe who was last seen refusing to reveal his salary to a select committee that was questioning him on Google’s tax affairs. Showing more of the same insensitivity to public opinion, he dismissed Brexit as a ‘local’ issue that’s distracting us from the national purpose of improving conditions ‘for big tech success here in the UK’, which sounded as though he meant conditions for giants like-Google to maximise profit at other taxpayers’ expense. But a separate BBC interview with the fund manager Neil Woodford made the point Brittin might really have been trying to make: that we have failed to develop the venture–capital networks we need to support promising tech start-ups, which tend in consequence to be sold too early to foreign investors: ‘We have been appallingly bad at giving those minnows the long-term capital they need.’ It’s a point I’ve made here before: big tech can look after itself, little tech is what we must learn to nurture.

My cousin Guy

Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian prime minister who has been appointed as the European Parliament’s Brexit negotiator, almost persuaded me to vote Leave. I found myself on a conference platform with him in May, when my mind was not yet firmly made up. He delivered the most federalist speech I’ve ever heard, hailing ever-deeper integration as the only logical path for the European project. I felt it my patriotic duty to respond with a pro-Brexit comedy routine in which I repeatedly addressed him as ‘cousin’ on the strength of my Flemish surname — winning laughs from the audience, but not from Guy. David Davis should brace himself for a humourless encounter.

By contrast, Michel Barnier, the Commission’s chief negotiator, may be another arch-federalist but there’s an obvious way to win his sympathy. Reports say he blames his sacking as France’s foreign minister in 2005 on slippery work by the British government of the day. Davis can open with: ‘I gather you have a grudge against Tony Blair. Join the club, mate, we’ve all got one of those.’

But Davis is fortunate not to find himself up against Peter Sutherland of Ireland, the member state that expects to suffer the worst collateral damage from Brexit in terms of jobs and growth. Former Brussels commissioner and world trade negotiator Sutherland has declared that ‘the insanity of Brexit is evident to all but the most obtuse’ and dismissed as ‘ridiculous’ Davis’s casual claim that there will be no need for a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Broken-nosed Davis likes to be known as a scrapper who served in the territorial SAS; bull-necked Sutherland played prop-forward for Lansdowne and has been know to take down a mugger in a London street. It would be a fight worth watching: my money would be on the Irishman.

HMY Enterprise

The Telegraph has called for a new Royal Yacht to succeed Britannia (whose 1997 decommissioning is another good reason to bear a grudge against Tony Blair) as a flagship for the great export drive that will be essential to post-Brexit economic success. I’m told even staid Mrs May has spoken of the need for a revival of ‘buccaneering’ British spirit in world trade, and we should expect lots more seagoing metaphors ahead. This column is happy to lend weight to the Telegraph campaign — with a reminder that I have been making the same plea since 2011, when I proposed a new yacht as a 90th birthday present for the Duke of Edinburgh, paid for by ‘a whip-round in the City, as a gesture of atonement for distress caused and gratitude for past business generated’. At a last-quoted cost of £60 million, it would require no more than a wafer-thin slice of the big banks’ 2016 bonus pot plus some donations from overpaid FTSE 100 chief executives. I name this ship HMY Enterprise.

The post A free vote on the Heathrow runway? Don’t be so wet, Prime Minister appeared first on The Spectator.

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