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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 October 2018

‘Global Britain’ takes Boris Johnson far away from Heathrow vote, saving Theresa May fresh party chaos

British PM has allowed foreign minister to miss key vote fearing he would resign and threaten Cabinet unity

British prime minister Theresa May explained at a press conference how foreign secretary Boris Johnson would conveniently miss a key Commons vote. Henry Nicholls - WPA Pool/Getty Images
British prime minister Theresa May explained at a press conference how foreign secretary Boris Johnson would conveniently miss a key Commons vote. Henry Nicholls - WPA Pool/Getty Images

Foreign secretary Boris Johnson will be too busy “showing the UK’s continued presence around the world” to vote on the expansion of London’s Heathrow airport next week, prime minister Theresa May said.

Conveniently, that also means he can keep his job.

While trade minister Greg Hands quit to oppose the expansion – honouring both his promise to residents in his district and the British political tradition that ministers vote with the government – Mr Johnson, also a long-time critic of the project, will be too far away to attend Parliament on Monday.

“The foreign secretary early next week will be what I would describe as the living embodiment of global Britain,” Mrs May said at a press conference in central London on Thursday. “Working on so many of the issues and challenges that we face across the world today.”

Mr Johnson, a former mayor of London, has said he is ready to lie down in front of bulldozers to stop the building of a third runway at the airport to the west of the British capital. He proposed instead building a new hub in the Thames Estuary to the east of the city.

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He was also a leading figure in the campaign for Britain to leave the European Union in the 2016 referendum, and Mrs May has preferred to keep him in a prominent Cabinet role to placate eurosceptics in her Conservative Party – as well as depriving him of a free rein to lead the opposition to her leadership from the backbenches.

His resignation or sacking over the Heathrow expansion would end any semblance of control she has over her maverick senior diplomat and add to the series of crises that have beset her premiership.

Fortunately for the prime minister, Mr Johnson’s job makes it plausible for him to be out of the country on crucial voting days.

That wasn’t the case for Hands, whose promise last year to oppose the Heathrow expansion left him with no choice but to resign, he said. His electoral district of Hammersmith and Fulham is under the airport’s flight path.

“As the Government will be whipping the vote on Monday, this means I am resigning from the Government,” Hands said Thursday on Twitter. “It has been an honour to serve the Prime Minister (and her predecessor) for the last 7 years and I wish the PM & the Government every continuing success.”

The opposition Labour Party has given lawmakers a so-called free vote on the issue, in part because economy spokesman John McDonnell – whose district is next to the airport – is opposed to the plan, while the party’s trade union funders support it.

Meanwhile, finance minister Philip Hammond insisted that his Treasury is not trying to undermine Brexit but is instead focused on boosting prosperity by promoting continued close ties with the European Union after the country leaves.

Mr Hammond is widely viewed as the most pro-EU of Mrs May’s senior ministers, and earlier this month Mr Johnson described the finance ministry as “basically the heart of Remain”.

In a major speech to London’s financial services industry, Hammond said his priority was preserving existing business and trade ties after Brexit, as well as seeking new global financial services deals with non-EU countries.