LONDON (Reuters) - Mayor of London Boris Johnson has accused the government of “pussy-footing around” on a crucial transport policy, in a broadside at Prime Minister David Cameron, a fellow Conservative whom Johnson looks increasingly likely to try and replace.
After the success of the London Olympics, which gave 61 percent of Britons a more positive view of him according to an Ipsos MORI poll, Johnson’s comments in a press interview were widely seen as new evidence that he wants the top job one day.
Portraying himself as a dynamic, can-do politician, the mayor drew an unflattering comparison with Cameron whom he suggested had got bogged down by “institutional capture”.
He dismissed as “nonsense” speculation that he might seek election to parliament during his mayoral term, but did not rule out a parliamentary bid after leaving City Hall in 2016. A seat in the House of Commons would be a necessary first step towards a challenge for the leadership of the Conservative Party.
“What the Olympics has done is to confirm in a lot of people’s minds around the world that London is the capital of the planet,” Johnson told the Evening Standard newspaper.
“What I think the government should do is make a very powerful statement of ambition for London.”
One way to do so, he said, would be to build a new airport in the Thames estuary to reduce the strain on Heathrow. The plan, which would involve building an artificial island, has been nicknamed “Boris Island” since he endorsed it last year.
“The government needs to stop pussy-footing around. I don’t think you can rely on Heathrow,” he told the Standard.
Many British businesses want a third runway to ease the capacity crunch at London’s hub airport, but most Londoners oppose the plan because it would worsen the already serious problem of noise pollution from aircraft roaring over the city.
Johnson said the government would be “mad and wrong” to go for a third runway.
The government, which has a wider range of interests to consider and is divided over options, has twice delayed the launch of a consultation about the airports conundrum.
“The attempt to try and long-grass it for three years into the other side of the (2015 parliamentary) election is just not realistic. Totally mad and it won’t work,” said Johnson.
Asked how the prime minister felt about these comments, a source at Cameron’s Number 10 Downing Street office said: “We are very relaxed about it.”
Johnson has gained praise from the pro-Conservative press for his strong vocal support for tax cuts and other pro-business measures. The government, in contrast, is often criticised for its strong focus on cutting Britain’s record budget deficit.
“The way to get business really motoring in the UK is to cut taxes, cut regulation, create the infrastructure and get behind it,” Johnson told the Standard.
The Downing Street source said the government was already doing all those things.
“We have the lowest corporation tax rate in the G7. We have introduced an 80-billion-pound funding-for-lending scheme. We have announced the largest investment in the railways since the Victorian era,” he said.
Cameron and Johnson were contemporaries at Eton, Britain’s most exclusive private school for boys, and at the academically elite University of Oxford, where they were fellow members of a notorious upper-class drinking society, the Bullingdon Club.
But while the prime minister tries to play down his privileged background to broaden his appeal, the mayor, whose full name is Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, has embraced his image as an eccentric aristocrat and turned it into a political asset.
A man often criticised for having a very high opinion of himself, Johnson acknowledges that and makes a joke out of it.
“All this is incredibly flattering and bad for my ego,” he said in answer to the Standard’s questions about whether he wanted to be prime minister.
“But it’s nonsense. I’ve got to get on with being mayor.”
Asked if he would run for parliament again after the end of his mayoral term, he said: “I honestly don’t know.” He was a member of parliament before becoming mayor.
The Times newspaper was among several that said Johnson’s response would fuel speculation about his leadership ambitions.
“Boris on the runway” was its front-page headline, conjuring the image of the mop-haired mayor lifting off into the political stratosphere.