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.
That makes it all sound too easy. There would be problems.
First of all, Heathrow is in the wrong place. It is not a good idea for large
numbers of planes to fly across a City crammed with people and historic
buildings. One day, there is bound to be a crash. Do we really want to worsen
the odds by expanding this airport? Equally, confronted by the likelihood of
more planes, the denizens of South-West London would say a great deal, none of
it acquiescent. When it comes to suffering from aircraft noise in the service
of economic growth, they feel that they have already put up with much more than
their share. Their resistance movement would also be formidably led, by Zac
Goldsmith. Some Tories are suspicious of Mr Goldsmith, because his late father,
Jimmy, was a confounded nuisance. But the sins of the father should not be
visited upon the son, who has many admirable qualities. On Heathrow, he gave
his word and is determined to keep it. He would regard it as unthinkable to do
otherwise. It is impossible not to respect a man with such a strong sense of
honour. He is also just about as charming a fellow as one could hope to meet —
and this is a genuine charm, not a mask for selfishness (see below). If the Government
ever did opt for Heathrow, it would be irresistible force meeting immovable
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
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.