A decision on airport capacity will be left to David Cameron’s successor in a move that effectively spells the end of plans to build a third runway at Heathrow.

Boris Johnson and Theresa May, the frontrunners to be the next prime minister, oppose Heathrow’s expansion and Cameron concluded there was little point in making a decision that would almost certainly be overturned, The Times quoted senior Downing Street sources as saying.

Transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin is expected to outline the delay to MPs in the Commons today.

He and chancellor George Osborne had wanted the outgoing prime minister to take the decision he has twice before delayed and favoured Heathrow’s expansion.

The announcement not to press ahead will be a boost for Gatwick’s rival bid for a second runway, which is seen as considerably less disruptive.

Former London mayor and current Uxbridge MP Johnson has long been an opponent of expanding Heathrow. May, MP for Maidenhead, has expressed concerns over noise and has previously been portrayed as an opponent of expansion. However, her position is believed to be more nuanced, the newspaper reported.

Civil servants in the Department for Transport are believed to have recommended in favour of a £17.6 billion northwest runway at Heathrow after being won over by the airport’s promises in May to curb noise and pollution.

Speaking at a conference this week, Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye said: “Now more than ever, Britain needs to underpin its globally recognised economic strength by delivering privately funded infrastructure projects like a third runway, to protect growth and underpin investor confidence.

“Constraints at Heathrow risk us falling behind our European counterparts and if Heathrow falls behind, Britain falls behind.”

His Gatwick counterpart Stewart Wingate said: “It is now clearer than ever that only Gatwick can deliver the new runway Britain needs.”

Ministers had been due to make a decision after the publication of last July’s report on the issue by the Airports Commission, which backed a third runway at Heathrow. The government postponed until Christmas and then again until this summer pending further analysis of noise and pollution levels.