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13 June 2018

Why is Boris Johnson obsessed with building bloody bridges?

Troubled waters.

By Jonn Elledge

What is it with Boris Johnson’s obsession with building sodding bridges? Is he afraid of the water? Does he have a morbid fear of travelling by boat? Or is it something stranger – a hitherto unrevealed, almost sexual fascination with concrete?

I only ask because he keeps bloody doing this. One of the many, silly fripperies he wasted his mayoralty trying to force on London was the Garden Bridge, a much-mocked proposal to spend scarce transport funding re-bridging an already well-bridged stretch of the Thames. It didn’t happen – but the time and energy he spent fighting for it always seemed vastly out of proportion to any benefit the bridge would offer to either the city or the mayor’s own political career.

(A footnote. I always opposed the Garden Bridge on the grounds that the money it would cost would be much better spent further east, where crossing the Thames gets generally difficult. Now the New Statesman has moved to new digs by Temple tube station, however, and I am finding I need to go a whole five minutes out of my way to cross the river, I am reconsidering my objections. Thomas Heatherwick, where are you now?)

The Garden Bridge was just a warm up for Johnson’s stint as foreign secretary, however. Back in January, he discussed a plan for a 22-mile bridge across the Channel with France’s president Emmanuel Macron. How this would be achieved without throttling one of the busiest shipping lanes on the entire planet was something that Johnson never made clear.

And this week, he was at it again, calling for a 14 mile road bridge from Northern Ireland to Scotland, at a reported cost of £15bn. (I’m not a quantity surveyor, but I’m going to go on the record as predicting that any actual bridge across the North Channel would end up costing a whole lot more than that.) This would be far less likely than the Channel Bridge to inadvertently choke off international trade – but nonetheless the Prime Minister’s office has said, in not so many words, that the whole idea is deeply silly.

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Why does he keep doing this? Surely it can’t just be because of Boris’ well-known love of things beginning with the letter B.

The obvious reading, at least of those last two proposals, is that it’s Lynton Crosby’s “dead cat strategy” in play once again. If we’re all talking about bridges, we’re not talking about something else – such as, for example, the fact that Brexit is going really quite catastrophically badly.

Or perhaps it’s a vision thing. By talking up such plans, entirely ridiculous though they are, Johnson shows that he’s looking to Britain’s future after Brexit, at a time when it’s just possible he might want to run for the Conservative party leadership. He’s showing that Brexit isn’t all there is. More than that, better links between England and France or Scotland and Ireland suggest a future Britain that is going to be moving more people and goods about than ever. These bridges would be a physical manifestation of the Liberal Leavers’ claim to believe in “global Britain”.

Or perhaps it’s something else – a simple desire to leave a physical mark on the world. Policies can be reversed; political careers end in failure. But a bridge, once built, tends to remain in place. People grow used to the connection, and kick up a stink if it’s closed. A bridge is about as permanent a feature of the landscape as politics allows.

Brexit is looming, and Boris Johnson’s future is not as bright as it once was. Perhaps these ludicrous bridge ideas aren’t meant to be entirely ludicrous after all. Perhaps they’re the sign of a man in search of his legacy.