A final decision on the battle for airport expansion between Heathrow and Gatwick will not be made for another year, it has emerged.
A minute to ministerial colleagues from the prime minister, shared widely on Twitter, reveals that the Economic and Industrial Strategy (airports) sub-Committee will meet later this month to decide on the Government’s preferred option from the three set out by the Airports Commission - a new runway at Heathrow, an extended runway at Heathrow and a new runway at Gatwick.
The Government’s preferred option will then be subject to a ‘full and fair public consultation before a final decision is put before the House, to designate the National Policy Statement (in winter 2017/18)’.
The minute also reveals that normal rules on collective responsibility will be suspended, allowing prominent colleagues such as Boris Johnson to voice their opposition.
However this only applies to ministers 'who have previously expressed strong opinions, or who have a directly-affected constituency'. No minister is expected to 'actively campaign' against the decision.
The move has prompted widespread speculation that the Government will favour Heathrow, as that option has been criticised by cabinet members including foreign secretary Mr Johnson and education secretary Justine Greening.
The Airports Commission unanimously concluded that the proposal for a new northwest runway at Heathrow Airport was the best option.
Whichever option is favoured a bitter legal fight is a distinct possibility.
Hillingdon, Richmond, Wandsworth and Windsor and Maidenhead councils have announced they will prepare grounds for a joint legal challenge against Heathrow expansion, along with Greenpeace UK.
And Gatwick has previously hinted it could launch a legal challenge against Heathrow or press ahead with its own plans regardless of the Government supporting Heathrow.
Richard Burden MP, shadow transport minister, said: 'Downing Street’s memo proves once again that ministers are more concerned about managing divisions in the Conservative Party than tackling the vital issue of airport capacity.
'There are differences of views in all parties on the Heathrow/Gatwick issue. We have all known that for years. But if the Cabinet are now going to be allowed to go their separate ways on this why could they not have decided to do that a year ago? It should never have been an excuse for delay after delay.
'If ministers had grasped this nettle this time last year, we could have been much further down the line on implementing a decision by now. As it is, uncertainty has reigned and the UK as a whole has been the loser.'