Lib Dem vote against plan for new runways embarrasses Clegg

Deputy prime minister says delegates’ decision does not ‘make sense’

in Glasgow Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg today suffered a blow at the hands of his own party when delegates vetoed plans for new airport runways in London.

The deputy prime minister backed an amendment that would have given him freedom to support a second runway at Gatwick, which could be useful as a bargaining chip in coalition government talks next year.

However, delegates at the party’s annual conference refused to go along, continuing the party’s long-standing opposition to an extra runway for Heathrow – but also ruling out building one anywhere else around London.

A major review of the UK's airport needs headed by businessman Sir Howard Davies, which has been deliberately delayed until after next May's general election, is expected to recommend expansion of either Heathrow or Gatwick.

Responding to the vote, Mr Clegg said: "The Liberal Democrats is a democratic party ... it's not a sort of North Korean sect that does exactly what the leader wants. I might want that sometimes."

Extra concrete

However, he insisted that the decision didn’t make sense: “I just don’t think it makes sense to say you’re never going to have a single metre of extra concrete anywhere, in any runway anywhere in the UK.”

In remarks that infuriated some, Mr Clegg said the party’s grassroots – who take their right to influence policy seriously – would have to reverse their views in time.

“It will need to be discussed again,” he said because he had seen in the past the danger of insisting on a policy position that was not really deliverable.

Mr Clegg has indeed been here before. In 2010, the party’s membership voted to support the scrapping of tuition fees, a decision which Mr Clegg strongly opposed. In government, he was eventually forced to abandon opposition to fees – a decision that has been a millstone around his neck ever since and caused catastrophic damage to his reputation.

Despite the party’s woeful performance in the European Parliament elections in May, the Liberal Democrats remain surprisingly upbeat about their chances. Sharing the optimism, Mr Clegg last night said that neither Labour nor the Tories could credibly hope to win a majority next May.

Pass the parcel

“The days when government was a game of pass the parcel between the red team and the blue team and back again, that’s gone. Politics has become more volatile. We’ve got new parties like Ukip and others coming up on the rails. I think coalition is not only more likely, I think it’s almost certain to occur again in the future,” he said.

“People have to ask themselves what Britain would look like if Conservatives were in power on their own or if Labour were in power on their own,” he added. “I personally think that as people come to focus on how they will vote we will get more of a hearing and we will return many more MPs than many of the sceptics and pollsters currently predict.”