Airports quiet as the Olympics keeps visitors away

200,000 fewer people flew into London in July than last year.

The thought of welcoming an influx of 300,000 or so visitors made even the least cynical Londoner wretch in anticipation. While optimists reveled in the thought of subletting their flats to American tourists, others slowly got used to the idea that tubes, trains, and pavements would be teeming with people who walk far too slowly.

And the London pace did slow. But not for the expected reasons. Statistics released by BAA (the company that owns most British airports) show that 4.1 per cent fewer passengers year-on-year made their way to Great Britain this July. Although Heathrow welcomed a record-breaking 236,955 passengers on the first day of the Games, there were roughly 200,000 less passengers in July 2012 relative to 2011. In particular, the airport noted a 6.6 per cent annual decrease in European traffic, even as North Atlantic traffic remained virtually unchanged. Stansted, Glasgow and Southampton experienced similar trends.

BAA’s statistics confirm anecdotal reports of London as a "ghost town". According to the Huffington Post, the city’s main attractions drew less crowds than before:

Bernard Donoghue, chief executive of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions, which represents venues ranging from London Zoo to St Paul's Cathedral, said visitor numbers were down by between 30% and 35%.

Donoghue argues that the reason for the drop is two-fold. Firstly, Londoners – obeying Mayor Boris – avoided the prophesied anarchy that would clot circulation within the capital. Secondly, non-Olympic foreign visitors were likely put off by fears of hotel overcrowding and general pandemonium.

In short, not only were there less visitors, but those that braved London went to Wimbledon rather than Wicked.

However, reports of record-breaking public transportation use somewhat contradict the aforementioned claims. On the 3rd of August, the Mayor announced that a record 4.4 million passengers used the Underground in one day. TFL further refuted claims of empty theatres with the fact that the West End’s stations saw a passenger increase of 27 per cent relative to 2011 on the 3rd of August. Moreover, Boris hailed the short-term economic success of the Olympics by boasting that eight out of every ten hotel rooms were full – an occupancy rate that far exceeded that of Beijing or Sydney.

Jeremy Hunt added to this optimism by claiming that consumption has risen with the Games, quoting Visa statistics showing that:

London spend in restaurants is up nearly 20% on a year ago, nightclub spending is up 24%, and spending on theatre and other tickets has doubled.

While it is too early to gauge whether Boris and Hunt have cherry-picked statistics (anecdotes of small shop owners would certainly support this), it remains less clear whether the Olympics will “turbo-charge our tourism industry”. London is neither Beijing nor Syndey, and certainly doesn’t need expensive PR gimmicks. Or maybe that’s just the newly instilled pride talking.

Planes leave Heathrow, but fewer people were on them this summer. Photograph: Getty Images
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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle