Boris Johnson has defended his decision to miss a crucial Commons vote on Heathrow expansion, saying his resignation from the Government would achieve “absolutely nothing”.
The Foreign Secretary faced widespread derision after he chose to be out of the country on official business on Monday despite his long-standing opposition to a third runway.
In an open letter to constituents in his west London seat, quoted in the Evening Standard, he said: “My resignation would have achieved absolutely nothing.”
The foreign secretary, a long-term vocal opponent of the expansion, was pictured in Afghanistan as he avoids the vote - despite other Conservatives facing a three-line whip in favour of the plan.
Transport Secretary Chris Grayling swerved criticism of Mr Johnson's decision to skip the key vote and framed it as a "constituency issue" for many MPs.
He has urged MPs of all parties to back “the biggest transport decision in a generation”.
Mr Johnson's meeting with Afghan officials was revealed with a tweet from the nation's foreign ministry, several hours before the key Commons vote.
There are also expected to be votes going either way in Labour, which is officially opposed to the expansion.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has offered his MPs a free vote.
He reacted to the potential defiance of the party line by up to 40 MPs.
The expansion is supported by trade unions but opposed by his shadow chancellor John McDonnell, whose Hayes and Harlington constituency is nearby.
He said: “Successive governments have wrestled with the issue of Heathrow expansion, but never before has Parliament held a vote on this project.
“At stake are thousands of new jobs and the country’s ability to compete on an international stage and win new global trade.”
He made five pledges over the Heathrow expansion:
- No cost to taxpayers
- An economic boost providing 100,000 jobs
- Guaranteed benefits for the whole country including internal flights, rail links and “global opportunities” for regional firms.
- Built-in environmental protections
- The ability to fine Heathrow or ground aircraft if Heathrow breaks its own promises over the scheme.
The long-running saga over whether to expand Heathrow or Gatwick – or build a new airport as wanted by Mr Johnson – has already sparked resignations in the Conservative Party.
Richmond MP Zac Goldsmith quit as an MP in October 2016 in protest at Government support. He stood as an independent in a by-election, but lost to Lib Dem Sarah Olney before rejoining the Tories and retaking the seat at the 2017 general election.
And last week, Chelsea and Fulham MP Greg Hands quit as international trade minister to oppose the airport expansion.
That move in the face of a three-line whip put pressure on Mr Johnson. But Mrs May last week confirmed he would miss the vote by being “the living embodiment of global Britain” abroad.
The Government has so far declined to say where Mr Johnson will be on security grounds.
The Commons vote coincides with a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg, but Sir Alan Duncan is set to be the UK’s representative there
Mrs May told reporters last week: “The Foreign Secretary early next week will be what I would describe as the living embodiment of global Britain.
“He will be out there actually showing the UK’s continued presence around the world and the work that the UK continues to do around the world with our diplomacy, working on so many of the issues and challenges that we face across the world today.”
International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, speaking to Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday, said: “The Foreign Secretary is regularly out of the country, probably the only person more than myself who is required to be away to do their job. I’ll happen to be there, but I was away last week.”
Following the announcement earlier this month that the Government intended to press ahead with a third runway, Downing Street indicated ministers with long-standing objections would be able to voice their opposition at a “local level” but would not be permitted to speak against it in the Commons.
Ahead of the vote, officials said the expansion of Heathrow would create 114,000 extra jobs in the area around the airport by 2030, with an extra 16 million long-haul seats by 2040.
It would represent the first full-length runway in the south east since the Second World War, the Department for Transport said.
Opponents have attacked the scheme on environmental, noise and financial grounds grounds, with Friends of the Earth saying it was “morally reprehensible” and would see the enlarged Heathrow emitting as much carbon as the whole of Portugal.
Greater Manchester’s Labour mayor Andy Burnham urged the Prime Minister to guarantee funding for transport projects in the north – including rail – saying the Government’s “focus has drifted southwards once again”.
He said that the Brexit referendum had been a “clear instruction from the British people to rebalance our economy and our country”, adding: “The great risk of pressing ahead with the expansion of Heathrow is that it does the exact opposite.
“It could suck more activity and investment into the capital and leave the north waiting even longer for its promised Northern Powerhouse.”