Vince Cable: The aviation industry is ‘flying blind’ on Brexit

Posted On: 
23rd January 2018

Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable tells PoliticsHome airlines are unprepared for the impact of Brexit and urges the Government to change course on Heathrow expansion. 

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In October 2016 the Government finally made an announcement the aviation industry had been waiting for and backed a new runway at Heathrow.

It was billed as a way to cement Britain’s global status as the gateway to Europe, but as Brexit negotiations unfold the industry’s position looks increasingly uncertain.    

Airlines are urgently calling for clarity but with trade talks still to come and the possibility of ‘no deal’ on the table, they have little to go on.

“They are flying blind,” says Vince Cable.

The Liberal Democrat leader is concerned that Britain’s exit from the EU has profound implications for our biggest airport and is urging Ministers to take stock.  

“It will raise fundamental questions on whether it is meaningful to talk any longer about Britain being the hub of Europe, because that was the original idea behind Heathrow,” he explains.  

“If business starts going somewhere else then that will no longer make any kind of sense. And there are very specific issues around rules governing flights, European regulation – whether we are going to align with Europe or go in a separate direction. It’s creating massive uncertainty…

“We need clarity, essentially, and we need as much convergence with the European Union as possible.”

The budget travel that we have come to take for granted, he warns, could be under threat.

“Ryanair, Easy Jet and all these people, their businesses rely on easy access to other European countries and the future of that is in doubt.”


The Twickenham MP has long backed Gatwick expansion as the best option for increasing the UK’s aviation capacity – hardly surprising given the location of his constituency. But, he argues, the evidence has shifted firmly in his favour.

“The most recent analysis using the Government’s own figures, not anybody else’s, but using the Government’s own figures, tend to show that there is more economic value from Gatwick than Heathrow,” he insists.

“It raises the question: are they listening and are they willing to change course now there is new evidence?”

He points out that if Ministers press ahead with current proposals they could be shackling the UK’s regional airports for the next three decades.

“One of the key constraints on what government can do is carbon emissions. The Government is going to be quite close to the limit of carbon emissions permitted under our legislation in 10, 20, 30 years.

“If Heathrow goes ahead it’s going to soak up most of the additional emissions that the aviation sector can produce. That will, in effect, make it impossible to expand Glasgow, Edinburgh, Newcastle – so effectively Heathrow will swallow up carbon demands for the next generation.”

The former Business Secretary is also critical of the lack of detail on meeting pollution targets.  

“It’s now becoming clear that in order to meet the legal requirements on air quality there would have to be a severe restraint on ground traffic using Heathrow and a massive investment in public transport by TFL that nobody has yet explained.

“TFL, I think, estimate 15bn of investment is going to have to go in. Nobody has yet explained where this money is going to come from. The Government has not said it’s willing to subsidise it. The company can’t pay for it. So, there is a massive financing gap which is casting great doubts on the whole thing.”  

Mr Cable will raise these points in a Westminster Hall debate and cite the ongoing consultations to support his stance.  

“What’s quietly happening,” he says, “is that while all these consultations are coming and going and people are putting in new evidence the story is changing.

“What looked initially to be quite a strong Heathrow set of arguments is beginning to dissolve and the underlying question is: is the Government sufficiently open-minded or clear-headed to be willing to change tack?”