Boris Johnson has threatened a rift with senior Tory colleagues by condemning the government’s aviation policy as “totally mad” and urging ministers to proceed faster with new economic growth measures.
The mayor of London, buoyed by strong poll ratings and a successful Olympic games, made the forthright comments in a newspaper interview on Wednesday. His observations left colleagues visibly irritated, with Iain Duncan Smith, welfare secretary, saying it was nonsense to suggest that the prime minister was simply sat “twiddling his thumbs” in Downing Street.
Despite hugging one another at an event during last week’s Olympics, relations between David Cameron and Mr Johnson are uncomfortable, not least because the latter is now the grassroots favourite to become the next leader of the Conservative party.
In his latest outspoken interview – in the Evening Standard – the mayor urged the government to “stop pussyfooting around” and get started on a clutch of new infrastructure projects to boost Britain’s economy in the wake of the Olympics.
He has made similar comments before – most recently on Sunday – but this time the language was unambiguously challenging towards his own cabinet colleagues.
Johnson said that while George Osborne, the chancellor, was “up for” big ideas such as an airport in the Thames estuary, David Cameron, the prime minister, was more equivocal. “The way to get business really motoring in the UK is to cut taxes, cut regulation, create the infrastructure and get behind it,” he said.
This belies a difference in opinion between the chancellor and the mayor: the former wants to revive Heathrow’s third runway while the latter wants to build a new airport in the Thames estuary at the cost of £50bn. Neither option is exactly a goer in the current political and financial circumstances in which the government finds itself.
In particular Johnson criticised the attempt by the coalition to park its aviation review in the long grass for the next three years, as I revealed back in July.
Insisting that London was the “motor that can drive growth” to the rest of the UK, the mayor outlined a range of potential projects including a second Crossrail initiative, more river crossings and a “massive’’ house-building programme for the capital.
Mr Johnson’s own political stock has risen following the success of the Olympics, fuelling speculation that he could be a future candidate for Conservative party leader – at least among Tory MPs and lobby journalists. It is true that his personal ratings are certainly far above those of potential rivals such as Mr Osborne. (It might be worth asking, however, whether his popularity would translate in the distant corners of the UK.)
While he has dismissed this idea, Johnson hinted in the interview that he could return to parliament when his tenure as mayor expires in 2016, saying he “honestly” did not know whether he would stand again as an MP.