Like the War of Jenkins’ Ear in 18th-century Anglo-Spanish relations, Heathrow is becoming something of a totem in the fight for the soul of the Conservative party. Whether you prefer your new runways to the east or west of London positions you on the other great issue of the day: who should be leader. If you’re an MP with a constituency anywhere near west London, you’ll probably be in the Cameron camp, shifting uncomfortably in your brogues, wondering how best to perform the Yeo flip and support a third runway at Heathrow.
The alternative is of course the Boris camp, whose members think the PM’s plan pathetic. Brave, confident countries build big airports in anticipation of big planes. They do not spend years fiddling about, blighting homes and messing about businesses only to plump for a solution which will already be out of date by the time it is built. It is the classic battle between pragmatism and vision.
To Cameroons, Boris isn’t piloting his plan towards a smooth landing; he is performing a loop-the-loop which will end horribly in what is known in the business as ‘uncontrolled flight into terrain’. The problem for Team Boris is that hardly any of the players who would seem to be important in making the decision for an estuary airport seem to favour it. The government doesn’t want it. BAA, our biggest airport operator, doesn’t want it. BA, which can just about still claim to be our national carrier, doesn’t want it. Ryanair would rather fly out of a tin shed 100 miles from London if it was cheaper, so it certainly isn’t in favour. As for the environmentalists, forget it. They don’t want an airport at all, of course, but if they were going to have one, they would sooner see a suburb bulldozed than disturb one sacred mud-wading bird.
Moreover, the Mayor’s office hasn’t got the resources to fund the feasibility studies required to support the case for a new airport in the Thames estuary. Last week, Boris’s new head of aviation policy, Daniel Moylan, wrote to David Cameron to ask whether more funds might be available for the Mayor’s work in this field. It would be hard to imagine a man deriving more pleasure from launching an object at a wastepaper basket.
Politically, then, Boris’s airport ought to be a non-starter; the Battle of Heathrow all but won. But Cameron’s plan has problems, too. There has been a change in the mood of the nation over the summer — a new confidence and a greater desire for not doing things by half-measures.
In addition, when you strip out the vested interests who want to preserve their dominance of Heathrow, the case against a third runway is compelling. It has the word ‘stop-gap’ written all over it. The third runway would only really be half a runway: suitable for short-haul aircraft but not for the long-distance direct jets to China needed to attract Far Eastern business to Britain. That the Prime Minister supports this plan demonstrates the short-termism of his thinking — it’s not what’s good for the country that interests him, but what is easiest right now, politically.
And like many politically expedient, but fundamentally untenable positions, Camp Cameron’s plan is about to run into media trouble. This week, the Policy Exchange think tank was due to publish a paper recommending that Heathrow be allowed to jump the M25 — and extend right up almost into the Queen’s garden — the edge of Windsor Great Park. This plan, which recommended four new runways be built, might not matter so much, except that Policy Exchange is Cameron’s ‘favourite think tank’ and the author of the report, Dr Tim Leunig of the LSE, was last week appointed as an adviser to Michael Gove and David Laws in the Department for Education. So a key member of Cameron’s coalition is set to ignite the row once more. And the Queen, already no great fan of David Cameron, is unlikely to be overly keen on having a fleet of Boeings by her back door.
Someone should have seen this coming. Dr Leunig has form when it comes to devising politically impossible plans which offend vast numbers of people: he was the lead author of ‘Cities Unlimited’, the Policy Exchange paper from 2008 which recommended that northern industrial cities be allowed to shrink and London allowed to expand. In Liverpool, Dr Leunig has acquired a reputation only marginally better than that of Kelvin -MacKenzie.
The decision to appoint Sir Howard Davies to head a commission into Heathrow expansion is a typical piece of the prevarication we have come to accept of all infrastructure projects: Davies has effectively been given three years to decide whether to reverse a decision by the previous government to build the third runway. It is obvious that Sir Howard’s work shouldn’t really take three years; taxpayers are being forced to shell out just to take the decision beyond the next election, to avoid the government having to renege on the coalition agreement.
On this subject, The Spectator is firmly in the boris camp. Given the painfully stretched-out timetable, the argument that we need airport expansion now and therefore we can’t wait for an estuary airport loses validity. Neither is it true that an estuary airport is an airy-fairy scheme which pushes the limits of practicality. Boris is not in fact committed to the fantasy island off Whitstable which has come to carry his name. His team will publish a range of proposals later this year, which will also include the Norman Foster proposal for a four-runway airport abutting the Hoo -peninsula in Kent. It is also likely to include expansion of Stansted and other estuary sites, such as Maplin Sands, which was approved by the Heath government as the site of London’s third airport before being dropped in favour of Stansted.
Support in the Boris camp, though, is ultimately veering towards an airport on or near the Norman Foster proposal, and for a straightforward reason: it is the site which allows an airport to be combined with two other goodies: another Thames road crossing and a tidal barrage. While the Environment Agency has extended the projected lifespan of the existing Thames Barrier to 2070, it is painfully clear that rising sea levels — or in this case, strictly speaking, sinking land levels — are going to necessitate a much more substantial tidal barrier at some point. Unless London itself is to be allowed to flood, the Thames will eventually have to be turned from naturalistic tidal estuary into an engineered coast similar to that which turned the Zuider Zee into the Ijsselmeer in the 1930s.
Today’s vision, in other words, will inevitably one day become pragmatism. Boris may or may not win the battle for the soul of the Conservative party, but ultimately his inclination for some serious engineering in the Thames estuary will prevail.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 6 October 2012