One of the many difficult issues in Theresa May’s inbox is airport expansion in the South East. Everyone knows it is necessary unless the UK is going to either limit its economic growth or leisure travel, but around each option for expansion cluster NIMBYs and hostile pressure groups – including in the case of Heathrow, still seen as the frontrunner, Cabinet heavyweights such as Boris Johnson. Yet given the UK desperately needed a sign that it was still open for business after Brexit, and following some quite anti business rhetoric from the PM at Tory conference, there was optimism following briefings last weekend that a decision of some sort might be on the cards from the new Prime Minister. Instead the Government finally made its move this week – to delay any final decision for at least a year.
This action has two explanations. The first is that Theresa May is struggling to make the transition to Prime Minister and is becoming a John Major style premier, unable to make hard choices and hobbled by rows over Europe and a small majority. The second, and more optimistic (particularly if you are a Tory) view is that she is temporarily delaying the issue until after a 2017 General Election.
The continuous leaking by Cabinet Ministers over Europe, who all feel May cannot afford to lose them, is a warning sign that No10 cannot easily ignore. With an unelected Prime Minister who was installed by default, May is in a weak position to force through difficult issues – from Heathrow to Brexit to monetary policy and banking strategy (only this week the Bank of England Governor Mark Carney astonishingly slapped down the Prime Minister over her criticism of his loose monetary policy). As governing will only get more rocky from here on, Theresa May may have privately come to the conclusion that to face down opponents both internal and external, she needs her own strong mandate.
May must decide reasonably quickly in private if she wants to call an election in the spring of next year – as this will determine how the Autumn Statement, now a month away, will unfold. She either has to find a way to produce a mini-giveaway now or else try to hold fast in case she needs it later on and closer to 2020 if Brexit gets rocky and the economy gets into serious trouble. We await the 23 of November with ever more interest.