Lionel Zetter is Patron of Conservatives in Communications
Boris Johnson once described himself as ‘basically a Brexity Hezza’. What he meant by that was that he and former Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine shared a penchant for ‘grands projets’.
The prime minister’s announcement that, despite ballooning costs, HS2 would go ahead underlined his fondness for giant infrastructure schemes. At the same time, he also gave the green light to Northern Powerhouse Rail and promised massive investment in the bus network and in cycle superhighways. As if these were not enough, there were also announcements about 5G roll-out, and plans for up to ten freeports.
Aside from his personal predilection for such projects, the stream of announcements around HS2 also reflected the hard-headed calculation by Tory strategists that the best way to signal to former Labour voters in the North and the Midlands that their Damascene conversion would not go unrewarded was to at least start to address the long-running imbalance between investment in London and the South East, and the rest of the country. In order to do so the government had to tear-up long-standing Treasury rules on return on investment.
Aside from the cynical political calculation of the announcements they were also designed to take advantage of the historically low rates of interest on offer to stable governments, such as the UK’s. An added bonus is the prospect of, over time, using infrastructure investment to help to address the issue of low productivity that has plagued the UK for many years.
Boris Johnson’s track record of delivering on giant infrastructure projects is patchy. He can certainly claim much of the credit for the effective delivery of the 2012 London Olympics, and Crossrail was on time and on budget under his watch when he was London Mayor. However, the Garden Bridge scheme across the Thames was a costly fiasco, and during his time as Mayor he had vehemently opposed Heathrow expansion. Instead he championed ‘Boris Island’, an airport in the Thames Estuary – a feasible but controversial project.
But these past, present and future ‘grands projets’ – including talk of a bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland – are like their progenitor; they are not just very big, they are very bold.
The prime minister is proposing and championing them partly because of political and economic necessity, but also with an eye to his legacy. Boris wants to go down in history not just as a winner, but as a builder.
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This piece was written for our website.