I guess we should have expected it: Boris Johnson is not the kind of man to let himself be eclipsed by a piece of cloth. Until today, the big story of this week’s Anglo-French summit was the loan of the Bayeux tapestry, an 11th-century work of art depicting the Norman invasion of Britain. As diplomatic coups go it was charming, if a little staid. Theresa May gushed: “I am honoured at the loan of such a precious piece of our shared history which yet again underscores the closeness of the UK-France relationship.”
This must have been like a red rag to the taurine Johnson, serial stealer of the prime minister’s thunder, whom we can picture with a lightbulb above his head exclaiming: “You want underscoring? I’ll give you underscoring!” And so, splashed across Friday’s papers is his idea for a 22-mile road crossing over the Channel. No doubt he wants it to be known as the “Boris bridge”.
Let’s never call it that.
The form of the foreign secretary’s one-upmanship has a certain poetry to it: if May is a tapestry, embroidered at a tea morning in Maidenhead, then Johnson is an unwieldy erection, brandished at inappropriate moments for maximum impact. Londoners are all too familiar with this modus operandi.
Rather than, say, building a new road bridge over the Thames (which lacks an above-ground crossing between Tower Bridge and Dartford, a distance of 20 miles), the former mayor threw away millions on flashy projects of little real benefit. There was “Boris Island”, the plan for a new airport in the Thames estuary, home to thousands of potentially engine-clogging birds. Cost: £5m. There was the Emirates AirLine, a cable car to nowhere which serves four regular commuters. Cost: £24m. There was the canned proposal for a “garden bridge” in central London. Billed as a public right of way, it would in fact have been a private tourist attraction, with restricted access. Cost: £52m.
What matters for him is the big picture – the front-page photo of him waving from the steps of his new home: No 10
What do these white elephants have in common? They’re headline-grabbing, profile-boosting, back-of-the-envelope wheezes, announced with a fanfare of publicity before becoming bogged down for years as their sheer impracticality bites. The foreign secretary is not stupid; all were good politics in the moment, burnishing his credentials as bold, visionary, fun. But they never work for us, the public, because they are devised primarily to serve Johnson’s career, not our needs.
And so it is with the Channel bridge. What’s more exciting, moth-eaten embroidery, or a big, new thrusting piece of infrastructure, one that rights a wrong made 6,500 years ago, when rising sea levels separated us from our French cousins? Johnson has yet again outdone the woman he hopes to replace.
But as infrastructure goes, is another connection to France what we really want, when transport links between our northern cities remains so poor, and spending is so biased towards the south-east? Even the Conservative MP for Dover can think of higher priorities: in a tweet he said: “Boris is right – we must invest in infrastructure to keep trade flowing between Britain and France. Let’s start by dualling the A2 to Dover, building the Lower Thames Crossing and lorry parks on the M20.”
We can safely assume that Johnson hasn’t bothered to think about the details – of what else we might better spend the money on, or the difficulties of his own project (Jonathan Roberts, of the UK Chamber of Shipping, told Sky News that “building a huge concrete structure in the middle of the world’s busiest shipping lane might come with some challenges”). That’s not really his way, is it?
Because what matters for him is the big picture. And in case you weren’t clear, that’s the front-page photograph of him waving from the steps of his new home: No 10.