Heathrow Airport is the largest airport in United Kingdom and the sixth largest in the world. Recently, the British Government announced plans to expand Heathrow by adding a third runway. The thought of Heathrow expansion has been brewing since the days of the Blair premiership. Gordon Brown included the expansion as a key part of the Labour Party manifesto in 2010, but when Labour lost the election, David Cameron stalled the plans. This all changed when Theresa May announced that Heathrow would be expanded in October.
Heathrow expansion has been a complicated issue for the United Kingdom. Aviation experts warn that without expansion, Heathrow will run out of capacity by 2025. Since Heathrow is the primary international airport in the UK, this could have serious repercussions for the economy. On the other side of the argument, the local community is opposed to Heathrow expansion since many residents will lose their homes with the addition of a third runway. Some experts have also expressed environmental concerns.
The most interesting part of the Heathrow expansion has been the political crisis that it has prompted. Zac Goldsmith, a Conservative MP, represented the constituency that was home to Heathrow. Goldsmith was also the Conservative Party’s candidate for the Mayor of London earlier this year. Goldsmith ran a controversial campaign against the Labour Candidate (who won the election) Sadiq Khan (the first Muslim Mayor of London) for bringing Mr. Khan’s religion into the debate. Goldsmith was also a supporter of the Leave Campaign in the Brexit Referendum and his constituency voted heavily to remain. Goldsmith resigned his seat and left the Conservative Party in protest of the Government’s plan to expand Heathrow, triggering a by-election.
Goldsmith immediately announced that he would stand as an independent candidate in the Richmond Park By-Election to retake his old seat. He announced that he would receive a “Zimbabwe-esque result” and be re-elected comfortably. Other parties have used the by-election to push their own agendas and make the case against Mr. Goldsmith to prove broader points that further their interests at the national level.
The Liberal Democrats, the most pro-European party in the UK, are attempting to make the referendum about Brexit. The Liberal Democrats are trying to appeal to a constituency that voted 72% for Remain. They have emphasized this issue by running an Anti-Heathrow candidate and visiting the constituency and emphasizing why Mr. Goldsmith’s Eurosceptic views are out of touch with the needs of the local population. If the Liberal Democrats won the Richmond Park By-Election, it would be a major confidence builder for a party that was reduced to only 8 MP’s in the 2015 election. Although the polls show massive support for Goldsmith, the Liberal Democrats recently outperformed expectations in the Witney By-Election which gave them a boost of confidence.
The Conservative Party has elected not to run a candidate in the Richmond Park By-Election. This is due in large part to the division of support that would hurt Mr. Goldsmith. The Conservative Party is down to 329 seats in the House of Commons with a 326 majority, giving them little room for error with the looming Brexit legislation that they need to pass to implement the referendum result. The Conservative Party would welcome an independent Brexiteer like Goldsmith over the potential of another Liberal Democrat or Labour MP who would vote against any Brexit legislation.
The Labour Party originally considered not running a candidate in Richmond Park, but later changed their mind. This was in large part due to their desire to want to avoid splitting the Anti-Goldsmith vote because of the animosity that still exists between the Labour Party and Goldsmith over the London Mayoral campaign.
Looking at other parties, the Green Party has long opposed Heathrow expansion. Green Party leaders initially did want to put forward a candidate for fear of vote splitting, but ultimately left the decision to their local party in the area. In the end, the local party chose not to put a candidate forward. The UK Independence Party chose not to put a candidate forward either, instead endorsing Goldsmith. This is most likely due to UKIP being the party behind Brexit and their desire to keep a Eurosceptic MP in the seat. The Scottish National Party will not contest the seat since it is not in Scotland, but has voiced their support for the Heathrow Expansion, meaning that it is likely to pass regardless of what happens in the By-Election. The Scottish National Party with 54 Seats will offset any losses that the Conservative Party faces on any Heathrow legislation from constituencies in the local area that oppose the member.
The Heathrow expansion has caused an interesting political crisis. It has shown the intricacies of politics that pit local interest against both national interest and party interest. Ultimately, it will be up to the elected representatives of the United Kingdom to decided what is in their national interest. The result of the by-election will present the local interest that must be considered, but at the end of the day Heathrow will be a decision made by the entire country for the entire country.