The airport expansion plan seems to have flown over the Mayor of London's head. Photo: Getty
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Boris Island plans are rejected, but is this really a blow for the Mayor?

A proposal to build a new airport in the Thames Estuary is to be rejected in an apparent blow to the Mayor of London. But could it help him?

The BBC is reporting that the plan for airport capacity expansion in Britain – building a new island airport in the Thames estuary – is to be rejected by Howard Davies’ Airport Commission. It is thought to be “too risky” and the “logistical challenges” are too great.

The Thames estuary option is known as “Boris Island”, because it is the pet plan of the Mayor of London, who has been backing such a proposal throughout the highly politicised debate about the state of Britain’s aviation and airport capacity. The debate is tied up with opposition to building a third runway at Heathrow, which is thought by many now to be the preferred option of the Commission, and for which the CBI has effectively come out in support, saying a single, larger-hub airport was “critical”.

So what does this mean for the Mayor of London? His aviation adviser, Daniel Moylan, has stated:

"Airports policy has been stalled for nearly five decades, ricocheting like a billiard ball between Heathrow and Gatwick…

"We have only one opportunity to break out of that but it seems the Commission has taken us back to the same old failed choice."

Johnson himself has written in the Telegraph that, although his support for “Boris Island” meant backing the single-hub option, a category which Heathrow also falls under, he still will not be supporting the expansion of Europe’s busiest airport:

There is no government in the Western world that would even contemplate an act so self-defeating, so short-termist, and so barbarically contemptuous of the rights of the population. That is why all three main parties have correctly ruled out expansion of Heathrow airport, in the form of a third runway.

So it is mystifying and depressing to learn that some in Whitehall want to use the cover provided by Sir Howard Davies to effect a colossal U-turn: by announcing that this option is back on the agenda – for consideration post May 2015.

The fundamental problem with Heathrow is that it is situated in the western suburbs, so that unlike any other major hub airport it requires planes to land by flying over the heart of the city. The answer is not to keep compounding the mistake, but to look at a new site.

Johnson has been on a roll over the summer, announcing his intention to stand as an MP in 2015, and choosing his prospective seat, Uxbridge and South Ruislip. However, if the possibility of championing the Thames estuary option is now out of the window, perhaps it gives Johnson a chance to distance himself from the airport expansion debate, therefore saving him from bashing one of the main employers of his potential west London constituents.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit