Boris declares "we're not dead yet" - but his aviation policy soon will be

The mayor's proposal of a new airport in the Thames Estuary has merely been given a stay of execution by the Airports Commission. Heathrow is the frontrunner again.

After the Airports Commission all but sunk Boris Island, the mayor sought to put the best possible gloss on the situation during his interview on the Today programme, declaring: "we're not dead yet, I think that's the good news."

Not dead yet, but certainly in the intensive care ward. In its interim report, the commission warned that Johnson's proposal of a new airport in the Thames Estuary would be "extremely expensive", would "present major environmental issues" and would have "uncertain" economic impacts. 

The mayor contested these conclusions, insisting that his policy would not cost "anywhere near as much as he's [Howard Davies] saying" and that he could secure significant "international investment". He described the idea of a third runway at Heathrow as "completely crackers", warning that it would be "catastrophic for London and for quality of life" and would "consign millions of people to noise pollution". 

But he conceded that Heathrow was the likeliest candidate for expansion, noting that while another runway at Gatwick would be "the least injurious" option, it would not deliver the "competitiveness boost" required since "the airlines will still want to go to Heathrow". 

Asked how he would respond if the commission definitively rejected Boris Island next year (in a  separate study) and if David Cameron pledged to support its final recommendation (due in summer 2015), he refused to accept that "hypothesis" but added that it would be a "grievous error" and "the wrong thing for the party". He ended: "I believe in going on and winning fights, rather than flouncing out" but, on this occasion, his struggle will almost certainly end in defeat. 

After all parties rejected the option of a third runway after the 2010 general election, the policy has made a remarkable comeback. But since both David Cameron (who declared in 2009: "the third runway at Heathrow is not going ahead, no ifs, no buts") and Ed Miliband (who nearly resigned as energy secretary in the last government over the issue) have a mutual interest in avoiding the subject, expect all parties to maintain a conspiracy of silence throughout the campaign. 

Boris Johnson said it would building a third Heathrow runway would be a "grievous error" and "the wrong thing for the party". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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