Boris's Boondoggles: A Partial Guide

By James O Malley on at

As Britain remains gripped by crisis, we look to our political leaders at times of need. What we need is someone who is disciplined, speaks clearly and can command the respect of people across the political spectrum. Cometh the hour, cometh the man… it’s just unfortunate that the man is Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson.

A seemingly unlikely Prime Minister, Boris’s ascendancy to Number 10 has been marked by a number of eye-catching projects that have served not to improve the lives of the people he was elected to serve, but his own larger-than-life personal brand. So much so that he probably now has more white elephants to his name than children. At least as far as we know.

So let’s take a look at some of the most egregious.

Stupid New Routemaster

Image: Allen Watkin/Flickr

It seems crazy to imagine right now but back in early 2008 the biggest problem facing London wasn’t a deadly pandemic, but the problem it still faces today: A massive housing crisis, as ordinary Londoners were, and still are, priced out of living in the capital.

It’s lucky then that the Tories new Mayoral hopeful had his sights set on the real cause of the problem: Some of the buses were just a little bit too bendy.

As part of BoJo’s pitch to the electorate, he vowed to end the scourge of the articulated bendy buses and replace them with a “new Routemaster”, invoking the name of the classic red London double-decker.

So shortly after taking office, Boris enlisted the design agency Heathwick Studio and bus manufacturer Wrightbus to come up with a modern bus that looked vaguely like the classic design, with the ability to “hop on, hop off” from the rear door, just like in Mary Poppins or whatever.

Sadly for Boris, the buses turned into a bit of a disaster: Though they looked pretty slick, they cost on average £350,000 a pop - 50 grand more than an equivalent normal bus. Worse, they lacked the capacity of the bendy buses they were replacing, meaning longer waits at bus stops. And worst of all? Shortly after entering service on the 24th June 2013 on route 24, passengers quickly realised that building a bus with a substandard air conditioning system, with no windows that can open was a really bad idea in the summer.

And though much fanfare was made about how passengers would once again be able to board from the rear door, this feature was soon axed as the need to employ an extra conductor for safety reasons proved too expensive.

Stupid Cable Car

Image: Lars Plougmann/Flickr

The big problem with East London is that there are very few ways to cross the Thames. Because historically ships needed to reach Canary Wharf to unload cargo, the Victorians and people of the 20th century never bothered building any more bridges east of Tower Bridge until the Queen Elizabeth Bridge at the Dartford Crossing was completed in 1991. So London needs more river crossings. But how?

Perhaps a new tunnel? Or a new raising bridge for bikes and pedestrians? Or what about a nice low-lying bridge and telling the slightly taller ships to fuck off? No, those options would risk being effective. So instead, Boris took millions of pounds from the Transport for London budget that could have been spent on unnecessary expenses like “making the tube work better”, and splashed the cash on what is today known as the Emirates Airline. A cable car linking North Greenwich at the O2 Arena, with the Excel Centre in the Royal Victoria dock on the other side of the Thames.

Don’t get me wrong: Cable cars are cool. But they are not practical. And the numbers since it opened in June 2012 bear this out: Though it was pitched as a system for serious commuters, by November 2012 - it was running at just 10% capacity and with just 0.1% of journeys being on commuter fairs. Because unlike a new train or road, it doesn’t integrate into commuting routes.

Today, the cable car is still going - but is pitched mostly as a tourist attraction. The speed has been slowed so passengers get to experience a longer journey, and regularly partners with #brands for themed tourist rides. Good work, Boris.

Stupid Orbit

Image: Gary Campbell-Hall/Flickr

London was awarded the 2012 Olympics way back in 2005, when Ken Livingstone was only making weird antisemitic remarks as a hobby rather than fully time as he was busy being mayor. By the time Boris seized City Hall in 2008, the plans for the games were already in motion, and Stratford in East London was a forest of cranes and diggers. But Boris still wanted to make his mark.

So Boris put out the call to build an “Olympic Tower” next to the stadium that would act as a viewing platform for the park. And £19.1m later - mercifully with £16m coming from billionaire Lakshmi Mittal - the ArcelorMittal Orbit was born.

With a final design that resembled the Eiffel Tower in the midst of a panic attack, the reception was… controversial. And in the years following the games, as the park has been slowly transformed into a new London neighbourhood, the tower has remained a ghost-town. Visitor numbers got so bad that to try to make it more appealing, slides have been added to the outside turning it into effectively an enormous helter skelter. But that hasn’t really worked either. So if you want to go somewhere in London for some peace and quiet, just head to Stratford, hand over £16.50 and you too can visit Boris’s Fortress of Solitude.

Stupid Water Cannons

Image: John Murphy/Flickr

Way back in 2011, people across Britain took to the streets triggered by the police killing of a black man. Yes, it was a different time.

But one of the consequences of the aftermath is that the reaction developed into a series of nightly riots for several days for several days. A few years later in 2014, as London Mayor, Boris Johnson thought that rather than focus on community policing or taking steps to build trust with communities, he would instead spend £320,000 on three water cannons, for use by the police if it all kicks off again.

There was just one problem to this brilliant plan: Police use of water cannons in mainland Britain is illegal.

So BoJo was lumbered with three water cannons he couldn’t use. And in 2018 his successor Sadiq Khan finally managed to get rid of them, unused - selling them to a scrap firm in Nottingham for £11,025.

Stupid Plane Paint Job

Image: Tony Higsett/Flickr

Just in case you’re wondering, when he finally reached his dream of becoming Prime Minister, he didn’t reform his old ways. Now almost a year into his Downing Street tenure, we can see that old habits die hard. Most recently, this manifested as his order to paint the grey RAF Voyager at the PM and other VIPs use to travel around the world in the colours of the Union Jack.

It’s probably not the worst thing he has done - but still, it’s another estimated £900,000 of public money being spent on a vanity project, and will result in the plane being less useful for its dual-military purpose, of acting a mid-air refuelling plane for fighter jets.

Ah well, at least red, white and blue is slightly more palatable than painting it red and printing lies about how much money we send to Europe on the side.

Stupid Garden Bridge

So far there we have only looked at the stupid ideas of Boris’s that have actually come to fruition. But really, Boris’s talent is constantly throwing shit against the wall and seeing what sticks. One of the things that didn’t stick was the Garden Bridge.

With Joanna Lumley as his hype-man, in the abstract, the brige might sound like a good idea: London needs more bridges (see above), and wouldn’t it be lovely if one was like a miniature park, covered in plants and trees rather than horrible tarmac and cement? But instead of proposing the bridge for East London, where it might have been useful, the idea was instead to build it in between Waterloo and Blackfriars’ bridges, linking Temple with the South Bank. That’s right - somewhere that didn’t need a bridge at all, and that wasn’t lacking for tourist attractions already.

To make matters even more absurd, the planning got as far as revealing that the bridge would need to be privately operated and hired out for corporate events to pay for itself, and somehow despite the project having now been canned, the developers managed to somehow spend a cool £50m without laying a single brick.

And then there’s the Thames Estuary Airport, dubbed “Boris Island”, which never really got much further than Boris’s brain and a feasibility study or two, but which got plenty of attention thanks to Boris using the Mayor of London’s bully pulpit to draw attention to it. On the surface, the idea was actually quite compelling: Heathrow is full and can’t expand, and it’s flight path forces noisy planes to fly low over London. So why not instead build a whole new airport to the far east of London, in the Thames Estuary?

There would be room for six runways, and approaching planes would fly over the sea, so no one on land would be disrupted. Flights would be able to come and go with ease 24 hours a day. And it’d be pretty straightforward to expand Crossrail to connect it to London. Hell, some people even pointed out that it would mean you could close Heathrow and suddenly London would have an enormous new, well-connected brownfield site on which to build housing. Brilliant, right? The only problem? It’d cost, umm, £47.3 billion. Not to mention the whole “climate change” thing.

Stupid Brexit

Image: British Embassy Tokyo/Flickr

So finally we end on Boris’s biggest boondoggle of all: Another big red bus. Forget vanity bridges and cable cars that link two places nobody wants to travel between. This is the big one: Boris’s crazy scheme to pull the UK out of the European Union, in an act of economic, diplomatic and political insanity.

To be fair, this wasn’t always Boris’s idea - the night before he backed the Leave campaign, he famously wrote two newspaper columns: One pro-Remain, and another pro-Leave - before making his decision on which would better grease the wheels of his clown car en route to Number 10.

But once he backed Leave, he instantly became the highest profile, and most popular politician to publicly support Britain’s seppuku. Like Mr Blobby endorsing Novichok, nobody cared about the consequences, they just enjoyed watching a big pink and yellow nightmare clown fool 52% of Crinkly Bottom into falling for the biggest Gotcha of all time.

At least the garden bridge would have been pleasant.

Main Image: Flickr