Monday, 17 October 2016

What's Wrong With Politicians Who Weigh Decisions Properly?

Boris Johnson stands accused this week of being.....actually I'm not really sure what he stands accused of. By his own admission he was very conflicted about whether or not Britain should leave the EU or remain in it. Like many of us he gave David Cameron the benefit of the doubt over his renegotiation strategy only to be be profoundly disappointed by the result.

Disappointment is actually a very diplomatic way to describe our reaction to that renegotiation and its resultant deal. It was a sham, a lie, a travesty. David Cameron, instead of butting heads with his fellow heads of government, instead of holding the sword of a referendum above their heads, simply gave up. Remember, there was no need for Cameron to call his referendum last June. The promise he had given was that it would be called by the end of next year. He had plenty of time to keep demanding more from the EU, to refuse to accept the shoddy compromises we were being offered. Britain had managed deals like that on many occasions in the past. It was how we got our various opt outs, it was how Margaret Thatcher got our rebate, it was how we stayed out of the euro.

As he considered what to do earlier this year Boris rehearsed the arguments. We all knew what they were. Even those like me who never wavered in our determination to take Britain out of the unholy mess that is the EU, could see some of the downsides if we got our way. We were often afflicted by doubts. Many of our countrymen would have had the same doubts, the same hand wringing as they decided in which box to place their cross. It was a huge and weighty decision that will change all of our lives.

I for one consider that the revelation that our now Foreign Secretary considered carefully the pros and cons of the case for and against our leaving to be rather reassuring. That surely is the least we can expect from our senior politicians.

There are many similarly difficult decisions approaching this Government in the coming months. Theresa May, though she may not write a newspaper column about them, will presumably be similarly conflicted over issues like a 3rd runway at Heathrow with all of the concomitant political issues that will follow. Broadly there is an economic case for another runway at Heathrow but even that is filled with doubts and caveats. There is certainly a pressing need for more runway capacity in the south east of England. But the case for it to be at Heathrow is actually about as convincing as the SNP's claims about Scottish independence whilst staying in the EU.

Mrs May, it is said, will finally announce her decision this week. It is probably going to be for Heathrow expansion. Just as with her delayed decision on new nuclear capacity at Hinkley Point, that will be a wrong decision, albeit one made for understandable reasons.

Heathrow is a disaster waiting to happen. It will break a manifesto promise made by the Tories. It will anger broad swathes of people right across London and the south east. It will require some spectacularly mendacious science with regard to pollution and emissions. The economic case is nothing like as convincing as is often made out. There will be mass protests and legal challenges. There may well be a Tory backbench rebellion. Britain's chronic inability to build anything expeditiously will once again be exposed for the whole world to see. And this at a time when we are trying to show we are open for business and confident in our future.

Quite why the idea of a new airport rather than a new runway has been dismissed so airily is a mystery. Heathrow is, by common consent, an airport in the wrong place and a hellish experience most of the time. So why make it worse? Why not build a brand new, state of the art airport in the Thames estuary, one that is future proof and connected to the whole country, one that will have space and will not create pollution and congestion?

Heathrow wants a third runway because at the moment it is full. But that makes it extraordinarily lucrative. It means it can charge huge fees to airlines and that is passed on to you and me. There is a lack of competition between our airports and that is creating higher costs. The Government, instead of giving the go ahead to Heathrow expansion, should say that it is at capacity and that its expansion is in nobody's interests. In reality they ought to close the whole thing down, build houses on the land and shift the whole airport east.

We are a small island whose capital city is distorting the rest of the country with its economic mass. If Theresa May genuinely believes in the good that governments can do then here is an opportunity to prove it. We have lots of underused capacity around London and into the midlands. The Government is committed to spending billions on a new railway line to speed people around the country. So why not use that investment to link up our airports?

When the decision is announced on Heathrow it will no doubt be called brave. This is not necessarily a recommendation. One could write articles recommending Heathrow expansion and arguing vehemently against. But deep down we all know that the former is a bad decision and one that is the establishment view, one of groupthink and lack of imagination. Boris probably won't lie down in front of the bulldozers as he once promised to do, but he was and is right about Heathrow. Just as he was, eventually, with Brexit.

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