Heathrow: Most MPs support third runway expansion
Heathrow airport has insisted there is "no delay" in the decision over a third runway and claims most MPs back its expansion.
Ministers have been told the Government's preferred option will be announced next week but will be followed by a "full and fair" public consultation before a final decision is made and then put to MPs.
Prime Minister Theresa May also moved to head off possible Cabinet resignations by giving ministers freedom to speak out against the Government's decision, which has been fiercely opposed by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Education Secretary Justine Greening.
A Heathrow spokesman said: "It is the expected and appropriate political process, there is no delay. Government announces its preferred option, consults on that position and publishes a National Policy Statement which Parliament then approves. Heathrow then applies for planning permission with support of government policy.
"Heathrow expansion has the support of the majority of MPs. In recent polling, 71% of Conservative MPs and 73% of Labour MPs back a new runway at Heathrow. We also have the support of business, unions and over 30 airports in the UK. The Airports Commission made a clear and unanimous recommendation that only expanding Heathrow will deliver the connections to emerging markets that Britain needs."
In a letter to ministers, Mrs May said colleagues with long-standing views or constituency interests on the issue would be given an "exceptional and limited" freedom to criticise the decision of the Cabinet's airports sub-committee, though they will not be allowed to campaign against it or call into question the process by which it was reached.
The letter also confirmed that the decision would be put to the House of Commons for a vote in the winter of 2017/18.
Mrs May's letter followed a protracted debate lasting more than an hour at the regular Tuesday morning Cabinet meeting.
The Prime Minister made clear that the choice on the Government's preferred option would be made not by the full Cabinet but by the airports sub-committee - on which neither Mr Johnson nor Ms Greening nor any other London MPs sit.
One Conservative MP, environmentalist and failed mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith, has already signalled his intention to resign and force a by-election in his west London seat of Richmond Park if the Government gives its backing to a third runway at Heathrow.
In her letter, Mrs May told ministers that they would be free to speak out only if they have "previously expressed strong opinions or ... have a directly affected constituency" and have sought her approval.
Richard Burden, 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."