Westminster Watch: The real weak spot for Boris Johnson

The local electoral fortunes of Boris Johnson may depend on his strong opposition to HS2 and Heathrow’s third runway

If you’d asked lobbyists for the Conservative leadership candidate they feared most on the biggest transport infrastructure projects, there would only have been one answer – Boris Johnson.

To understand why you have to look at the weak spot in his armoury – his constituency.

Johnson in No.10 would have the smallest majority of any PM since 1924. In 2017 he saw his Uxbridge & South Ruislip majority cut to 5,034 with Labour seeing a 10 per cent+ increase in their vote. It might not be on a razor edge, but it is definitely exposed and he will have half an eye on simply being returned as an MP next time around.

Unfortunately for HS2 and Heathrow his local electoral fortunes hinge on maintaining a hard line on the projects due to their impact on his constituency.

Boris will have half an eye on simply being returned as an MP next time around

Let’s consider HS2. Its route cuts right through the north-east of his constituency. The construction is already impacting the lives of his constituents. Some will lose their homes. There are established, vocal, passionate, local campaigns to spare the area.

MPs rely on local activists to knock on doors and they are often drawn from local councillor ranks. His council, Hillingdon, is a Conservative bastion in the west of London and has been among the most vociferous opponents of the scheme. Their leader consistently attacks it in the media and they are at the heart of two judicial reviews into it – one of which is still ongoing.

It is no surprise then to hear Johnson in the past suggest that HS2 shouldn’t be a priority. Last year he said: “There are projects we should have on transport in the north of the country that ought to take precedence over HS2.”

But when he gets in the hot seat will he pull the trigger on the scheme? Some would say Johnson is capable of finding a way out of situations he has been boxed into. The exit on HS2 may come from the project being too far advanced to cancel or insisting on tunnelling that spares certain areas.

Boris Johnson and Heathrow
Then we have Heathrow. Johnson has long been an opponent of the scheme (remember “Boris Island”, the new airport in the Thames Estuary, he pushed when he was Mayor of London?). When he was elected to Parliament in 2015, he promised: “…I will lie down in front of those bulldozers and stop the construction of that third runway.”

When the vote on the third runway came before Parliament he was “unfortunately” away on business as foreign secretary. His colleague, Greg Hands MP, resigned as trade minister in order to vote against the expansion plans.

But his constituency, again, adds an additional layer of complexity to decisions on Heathrow. The airport sits below the southern tip of his constituency and the third runway will bring it even closer.

Heathrow sits within Hillingdon Council, yet the antipathy between the leadership of both organisations is considerable. Hillingdon, it was reported in 2018, had spent over £600,000 on legal challenges to the third runway decision since 2016.

And I haven’t even mentioned RAF Northolt being fully within the Uxbridge & South Ruislip constituency…

An MP battling against HS2 in the north of his constituency and an expanding hub airport just to its south is one thing. That MP being the prime minister with the power to stop them is another. His constituents will have very high expectations.

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