Who knows if it’ll be Howard’s way?

As the saying goes, if you don’t want an answer you’re not going to like, don’t ask the question.

Prime Minister David Cameron is probably thinking something quite similar today, having been put on the horns of a dilemma by the publication of Sir Howard Davies’s report on the UK’s future air capacity needs. Sir Howard has concluded that the best option is to build a third runway at Heathrow, but without discrediting the potential benefits of a second runway at Gatwick.

It wasn’t a particularly surprising recommendation. One journalist even took to Twitter to comment that, in other breaking news, July is hot. But the effect of this report on the Prime Minister, and on the fortunes of the Conservative Party should not be underestimated.

The Prime Minister went on record in 2009 to reject the possibility of a third Heathrow runway. Many of his cabinet, and more of his backbenchers, remain implacably opposed to such a suggestion. The heavyweight opposition to Heathrow development includes Zac Goldsmith, who’s previously threatened to leave the Conservatives if a third runway is built – but who remains perhaps the Conservatives’ best hope of retaining the London mayoralty when Boris Johnson stands down. Mr Johnson has also rejected the Heathrow option in no uncertain terms – and in his usually colourful manner had promised to lie down in front of the bulldozers to prevent construction on a third runway (although on the Today Programme this morning, he was of the view his services as a ‘bulldozer blocker’ wouldn’t be required).

Approving Sir Howard’s recommendation, therefore, could potentially divide Tory ranks in a way few issues other than Europe can manage. So it’s unsurprising that the briefings coming out of Number 10 and elsewhere have been quick to distance Sir Howard’s report from Government policy. There’s now little doubt that the Government feels under no particular pressure to commit to a third runway just because Sir Howard said so.

But, why then ask the question? Why commission Sir Howard’s review in the first place? It is, after all, a report commissioned by a Conservative Secretary of State for Transport.

The answer is that there was, and remains, a need to understand the economic implications of the various options open to the Government. And this represents the other side of the Government’s conundrum. Sir Howard’s report has cost the taxpayer approximately £20 million. And his recommendations conclude that building a third runway at Heathrow would connect the UK to 40 more destinations and have the potential to generate billions in revenue for the economy – in addition to the thousands of jobs required for the building project.

Thus the Prime Minister is faced with an invidious decision. He can commit to a third runway, in which case he risks the wrath of many within his own party and the consequences such ructions will have on his ability to govern. Despite any protestations to the contrary, he will also be accused of a jumbo jet-sized U-turn. But if he says no to Heathrow then the questions will be why he spent millions on a report he may always have been committed to ignoring – particularly when its recommendations offer the tantalising promise of a prolonged shot in the arm for the economy.