David Cameron and Nick Clegg are set to intervene in the increasingly fractious row over Heathrow’s proposed third runway by launching an independent commission to review the future of Britain’s airports, FT Westminster has learned.
The Tory prime minister and his Lib Dem deputy have had urgent talks this week to thrash out a way to draw the poison from the toxic public debate about the expansion of Heathrow.
The pair will announce within days that they have agreed to set up a commission of experts to examine the pros and cons of different airport proposals. There will be no politicians on the commission, reflecting the coalition’s desire to end the political mud-slinging of recent days over the issue.
But campaigners against the third runway will fear that the move could give Mr Cameron the cover to pull off a public U-turn and swing his weight behind the scheme before the general election.
The department for transport had been poised to release its long-delayed call for evidence on aviation capacity as early as next week, starting the formal process of consultation.
But Mr Cameron decided to intervene amid speculation about the future of Justine Greening, the transport secretary and former campaigner against the third runway.
In-fighting within the Tory party had reached a crescendo this week with Tim Yeo asking whether the prime minister was “man or mouse” and anti-Heathrow MP Zac Goldsmith accusing supporters of the third runway of “scaremongering” and “lazy half-thinking”.
By shifting the consultation to the auspices of an independent commission, which could take many months to sift through evidence from both sides in the debate, Downing Street hopes to have put the lid on the issue in the short term.
The coalition agreed not to expand Heathrow before 2015 but senior Tories want to shift their position to backing the project by the next parliament.