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.

Show Hide image

Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.