Boris Johnson stirs up London airport debate

Transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin hoped to send MPs to sleep, but London mayor woke them up

Transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin is a doggedly decent politician whose only ambition on Tuesday was to make a dull holding statement about options for London’s expanding airport needs and send fellow MPs back to sleep. Bad luck, Patrick.

Not only did his appeal to MPs to “engage positively” with the latest proposals fall upon ears long deafened by noise from Heathrow, but by sheer coincidence Boris Johnson, Heathrow’s doughtiest critic, was addressing a press gallery lunch a few yards away. McLoughlin was like those plucky British paratroopers dropped to capture a bridge-too-far in 1944 only to land on a Panzer division unexpectedly resting at Arnhem.

Panzer Boris had already blitzed the morning’s media, attacking Sir Howard Davies’s report for paying only lip service to the London mayor’s rival solution, the £100bn Boris Island wheeze. Expanding Heathrow would be “an unforgivable mistake” and turn the capital into a “living hell”, he had predicted – as if it isn’t that already.

How could the mayor raise the rhetorical stake and justify the bike ride back to old Westminster haunts? By grabbing anything to hand and turning it into a joke as usual, that was how. Boris duly recalled that plans for a magnificent neo-gothic Palace of Westminster had been dismissed as a costly vanity project (£2m and rising) after the fire of 1834 by top columnist Charles Dickens among others. It is now one of the most photographed buildings in the world.

“So will it be with Thames estuary airport. I predict that when it is finally done, people will marvel – not that it was built, but why we delayed so long,” he said. Boris Island as the 21st century’s Houses of Parliament? That could be a hard sell to voters.

Had the Treasury nobbled Davies to exclude Boris Island, someone asked? “I have no idea.” You just said someone did. “Did I say that?” Cries of: “Yes you did. Who put pressure on him?”

Realising he was in danger of making news, Boris replied: “Me.” He had persuaded Davies not to reject the estuary option (not quite).

He did not stop there, he never does. The greatest city in the world is “hamstrung in the global race” (Boris gracefully attributed the cliche to David Cameron) by its inability to match six daily flights from Helsinki to China.

Do Chinese investors and tourists want to fly to Helsinki or London? “Since the Olympics we have been fighting them off with a stick,” he said. Falling crime, Crossrail, more US banks than New York, Bikram yoga centres, who could resist London?

It took some prodding to get him to talk about London’s acute housing shortage, its gross inequalities. He is against both, just as he is against Heathrow expansion. It would close the M25 for years and guarantee that aircraft full of would-be investors “pointlessly spew kerosene into the upper air over Croydon … Much as I love Croydon, it’s lovely, but I think inward investors can get too much of it.” He kept mentioning Croydon.

Lively stuff, but not vintage Johnson. Asked if he would be a Tory leadership contender or even an MP again in 2015, he was strangely diffident. Mumble, mumble. Had he been chastened by Boris Island’s rejection? Or had he belatedly become a statesman?

Not quite. Mention of Nick Clegg lit the blue touch paper. He called him a radio disc jockey with only light ceremonial duties, Cameron’s lapdog who has been “converted by taxidermy into a kind of protective shield, like the Emperor Valerian [AD200-260] who was skinned and hung on the wall”.

No Johnson speech is complete without a classical allusion. And Valerian is said to be the first Roman emperor to postpone a decision on Heathrow. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Link to article:


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.