The Definitive Guide to Boris Johnson's Buses, Bridges and Boreholes Under the Irish Sea
Illustration by Tracy Worrall
His cable-car crossing was the most expensive ever built, and his ‘Boris Bikes’ made it into the Oxford dictionary. With proposals on the table for a ‘Boris Burrow’ to connect Scotland and Northern Ireland, Robert Hutton explores Johnson’s quest to secure a lasting legacy.
History is a cruel mistress, and Boris Johnson knows it as well as any prime minister. One day a chap is running the country, and the next decade he’s an answer in a tricky pub quiz round.
So what should a fellow who wants to etch his name into public memory do? I’m thinking of the sort of person who throughout their life seems to have craved attention while never being satisfied with the result, if you know of anyone like that?
Simply being involved in a major shift like Brexit isn’t enough. Few now recall that Britain joined the EEC under Ted Heath and, in any case, some other Johnny can come along and overturn your achievement.
Some prime ministers have succeeded, of course. Wellington got his boot. Peel got the Bobbies. Gladstone got bags. Lloyd George gave his name to envelopes that the NHS is still using. And there’s the big winner, Viscount Melbourne, a largely forgotten premier who nevertheless got a volcano in Antarctica named after him as well as, well, Melbourne.
Sadly, unless the Global Britain project goes a great deal better than anticipated, it is unlikely the nation will be founding any new cities in Australia before the next election. So if Johnson wants his life to echo in eternity, he will have to imitate the action of the Romans he so admires, and carve himself into the stonework. Hadrian will always have his wall.
In a similar way, what Johnson has long seemed to yearn for is some kind of permanent memorial that, whatever its official title, would end up carrying his name. As his eyes turn towards the Irish Sea, The House brings you the official guide to Potential Johnson Memorials, the Boris Behemoths and the Boris Baubles.
Launch Year: 2012
Cost to taxpayer: £322m
Some said that London’s new Routemasters were full of hot air and failed to deliver what was promised, but that didn’t necessarily make them an inappropriate legacy for Johnson. The bigger problem is that they’re vulnerable to being retired by his successors. Vehicles are simply too impermanent a legacy: sic transit gloria mundi, as they say at the Ford factory.
THE EMIRATES AIRLINE
Launch Year: 2012
Cost to taxpayer: £24m
It is quite an achievement, in one of the world’s most populous cities, to find two points where no one seems to live and between which no one seems to want to travel, but Johnson managed that with his cable car across the Thames. More importantly, absolutely nothing about the project begins with a “B”.
Launch Year: ????
Cost to taxpayer: £5m so far, at least £47bn if actually built
Like Lex Luthor, Johnson knows that the thing about land is that they’re not making any more of it. This explains the huge appeal of building a new island in the Thames to be home to a six-runway airport. Technically, neither “island” nor “airport” begin with “B”, which is a mark against the project, but Johnson’s team found a way around that by proposing it be called “London Britannia Airport”, which is only a slip of the tongue away from “Boris Britannia”. There are one or two problems with Boris Island as a legacy project, mainly that every investigation of the idea not performed by the staff of The Spectator has found the idea impractical. But on the other hand, it already has its own Wikipedia page and an entry in the site’s list of things named after British prime ministers. And in its own way, an imaginary island could yet be Johnson’s ideal monument.
BORIS BRIDGE I: Up the Garden Path
Launch year: Ah
Cost to taxpayer: £43m
You know what does begin with “B”? “Bridge.” And unlike island airports, bridges do get built. This may explain Johnson’s willingness to spend really quite a lot of money on the Garden Bridge project, to link the bit of London next to the north end of Waterloo Bridge to the bit of London next to the south end of Waterloo Bridge. Cynics objected that there already was a bridge between those places, but that bridge wasn’t a Boris bridge.
Sadly for the Prime Minister, the first bridge to bear his name has managed both not to exist and to be the subject of multiple inquiries, as auditors and others try to get to the bottom of how so much money came to be spent on it. It is a legacy, but not the sort one seeks.
BORIS BRIDGE II: The French Connection
Launch year: Hm
Undaunted by the failure of the Garden Bridge, or possibly just trying to fill the silence in a conversation with Emmanuel Macron, Johnson in 2018 floated the idea of a bridge across the Channel. The chief advantage of this idea was that it stole the headlines at an event where Theresa May was the host. With that achievement nailed down, Johnson’s interest seems to have diminished somewhat. Engineers take the view that such a bridge is feasible, but to build it across one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes would be very expensive.
BORIS BRIDGE III: The Green Mile
Launch year: Receding
In 2019, shortly after taking office, Johnson expressed enthusiasm for yet another bridge, this time between Scotland and Northern Ireland. It would only, he said, cost about £15bn. One problem is that the proposed route goes over the spot where the Ministry of Defence spent much of the last century dumping munitions. But the idea has some support both in Scotland and Northern Ireland, despite the estimated cost having risen to £20bn.
BORIS BURROW: Going Underground
Launch year: Soon?
The latest version of the plan to link Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK involves a tunnel. In itself, this isn’t promising, because tunnel doesn’t begin with “B”. But other words do, such as “borehole”, which keeps this idea on the table. The most recent version of this plan to be reported involves four different tunnels which would meet at a giant roundabout on the Isle of Man, linking Liverpool, Heysham, Stranraer and Northern Ireland. Surely the chief appeal of this plan in the Prime Minister’s mind is the way that people blink in astonishment the first time they hear it.
BORIS BLUE SKY
If you’re an eager MP trying to get funding for something, this is the moment, so long as you have a thesaurus to hand. Could your space port be the Boris Blast-Off? What if that swimming pool became the Boris Baths? Might a library be a Boris BookBorrowBuilding? In the end, it might be cheaper if we just give him a statue.