Bruce Anderson: London needs more airport capacity — but we can ignore Boris’s madcap, self-serving proposals
Airports create political difficulties, and parties that have been out of office for 13 years do not always think clearly on all issues. Thinking is the key word; providing for the UK's future air travel needs is a complex business. Back in 2010, the Tory party was not ready to face up to complexity. There was some nonsensical talk about replacing air travel with rail travel. When probed, this collapsed like the intellectual wet meringue which it closely resembled. No: we were not suggesting that people should catch a train to Malaga, but why should anyone fly from London to Manchester? Why indeed, but it was absurd to suggest that the London/Manchester air route told us anything about airport capacity.
Influenced by unreason, the 2010 Manifesto came out against a third runway at Heathrow. This became part of the coalition agreement. Then the thinking had to start.
To assist that process, let us set out from consensus towards inevitable controversy. All sensible people agree that, in order to fuel economic growth, London needs more airport capacity. All sensible people agree that there is no cost-free option. A third runway at Heathrow would seem to be the obvious choice, for two reasons. It would be cheapest — BAA would pay for it — and, whatever they might say, the inhabitants of South-West London are used to planes overhead. The Treasury, hard-headed as ever, sees no realistic alternative to Heathrow.
So what are the alternatives? Boris Island has been much touted, principally by the man who did not invent it. The prospect of a Thames estuary airport was first floated, as it were, by Kit Malthouse, in the Times (Mr Malthouse is now one of Boris's deputies and leading strings). If the idea had come from Boris, no-one would have taken it seriously; you do not ask Bertie Wooster to think up an airport strategy. Given initial credence by Mr Malthouse, the notion sounded attractive, until there was an audit of the detail.
Much of the technology is unproven. It would take years to deliver — if it could be delivered. There would be problems with birds. Fear not, gentle reader, I am not turning twitcher on you. I am not about to become elegiac about the threat to the sacred haunts of the lesser-spotted greenshrike. But the Thames estuary is full of birds, who would fight back against planes by getting themselves sucked into the jet engines. Think Alfred Hitchcock: Birds II. There would also be difficulties about sharing air space with Schiphol, though one suspects that this would not prove insoluble, if everything else could be managed.
It cannot. Above all. where is the money to come from? According to the estimates, it could cost up to £50 billion. Boris blusters on about sovereign wealth funds. But those funds are not run by Santa Claus. Would they really invest tens of billions in speculative technology, when it might take more than a decade to see any return on capital? I think not.
But this is not about detail. To be fair to Boris, he has never shown any interest in that. This is about Boris's next move. Boris is a strange character, far more complicated and far less likeable that the superficial impression would suggest. He is also a curious mixture of insecurity and ambition. Not wholly lacking in self-knowledge, uneasily aware that he has a large stake in shallowness and amorality, he keeps on expecting to be found out. Then he is, but everyone forgives him. So he thinks that he can get away with anything.
In pursuit of that, he deploys charm. This is always a disguise for selfishness. Boris is much the most solipsistic person I have ever met. Stand back from the bumbling and burbling and pretence of affability and you will realise that this is a man who is wholly uninterested in other human beings except as a means to his gratification or advancement. This is a charismatic narcissist: think Bill Clinton, think Alcibiades. Alcibiades was an Alcmaeonid, an Athenian aristocrat: think Eton in the 5th Century BC. As well as intellectual sophistication vastly exceeding Boris's, he had as much charm as a cartload of monkeys. But he betrayed both Athens and Sparta. He was also responsible for the Sicilian expedition, a far worse idea than Boris Island. By the end of his career, the city and the society that had nurtured him were both terminally weakened. One of the greatest eras in human history was over.
Boris is not that bad, partly because he is not so fatally talented. In 2008, when he decided to run for Mayor of London, he had no idea how to campaign, what to campaign on or how to create a political identity. So he went to David Cameron's office in urgent need of help. He was given it, principally in the shape of Lynton Crosby, who told him what to do and what to say. In 2012, he was re-elected, largely because of another invaluable addition to his campaign team: Ken Linvingstone. But he no longer needs David Cameron.
Boris, who has little in the way of generous instincts, has always been jealous of Mr Cameron. Because he has no stable political identity and no ability to grasp complicated questions — the idea of him discharging the Prime Minister's duties for five minutes is risible — Boris now seems to be piqued into a bizarre attempt at emulation. Hence the recent nonsense over the airport. There will be more to come. It might be thought that Boris would feel some loyalty to his party and to the Government. It he did, he would not be Boris. He will do nothing to help the Tories win the next Election, unless he decides that there is something in it for him.
To return to the airport, there is only one sensible next step: a review of all the options, including Gatwick and Stansted. Howard Davies is exactly the right man to conduct this. He has a clear, incisive and wholly unsentimental intelligence: just the fellow to clarify the arguments and assess all the options. On his watch, LSE took money from Saif Gaddafi: so what? Pecunia non olet. Moreover, he resigned as soon as the trouble started. In a rational era, that would not have been necessary; he had done nothing wrong. But we do not live in a rational era. Out of fastidiousness, Sir Howard quit his post to prevent the LSE suffering unjustified reputational damage.
From the Government's point of view, the Davies enquiry has a further advantage. It will create long grass; the decision will be postponed until after the Election. But there will come a moment when decisiveness, and courage, will be required. Although airports are never easy, we do need them.