Let’s go back to the Conservative general election manifesto of December 2019, the one Boris Johnson ran on when winning his 80-seat majority. “We remain committed to devolving power to people and places across the UK,” it said. It declared the idea that “Whitehall knows best” redundant in the 21st century.
Now watch the final minutes of Johnson’s Covid press conference a week ago (from 57.10). Asked by the Evening Standard’s Nicholas Cecil if his government would reach a long-term funding settlement with Transport for London – something it has repeatedly refused to do ever since Covid destroyed the transport agency’s lifeblood fares income – Johnson said doing so requires Sadiq Khan “to initiate a sensible and pragmatic fares policy and not the retrograde one that we saw at the early stage of the current Mayor’s term, and that’s what we’re looking to achieve”.
Were proof still needed that Johnson’s government has exploited TfL’s Covid-induced financial woes to impose its own policy agenda on London’s strategic transport authority, there you have it: the Prime Minister wants Londoners to pay increasingly high public transport fares and intends to use the power of central government in Whitehall to force the capital’s directly elected Mayor to agree to it. Anything else would be “retrograde”.
Are there parallels with Johnson’s “partygate” troubles over Covid restrictions? Could be. With Covid he tells people they can’t have things like parties, yet BoJo’s Whitehall has been clubbing like Ibiza. With devolution he says he wants lots more of it then sets about destroying the devolution set-up London has benefited from since the start of the century. It’s one Covid rule for Boris and company, another for the proles. It’s devolution for all as long as all do what Whitehall says.
The mistreatment of TfL by Johnson and certain members of his team has been one of the great under-told stories of the pandemic period. Devious, spiteful, and very stupid indeed, they have deliberately damaged a public transport network that is the envy of the world and crucial to London’s power as a global economic machine that drives the whole of the UK.
Instead of securing this prize national asset and setting it fair to lead national recovery, they have colonised it, stripped it of powers and set about wrecking it. For the best part of two years the policy area we used to call the one over which London Mayors had most control has been run remotely by a ruinous combination of electoral calculation, ministerial slyness and oddball revenge.
Throughout, there’s been a stream of divisive disinformation, most egregiously the moronic mantra that TfL must be helped through its crisis only up to a point that is “fair” to the rest of the country. London’s economy subsidies the rest of the UK to the tune of close to £40 billion every year. That’s nearly four times what Chancellor Rishi Sunak reckons to make from the entire country through tax threshold changes set to come on stream in 2025. The word “fair” has never been more foully abused.
A senior figure from another organisation responsible to the Mayor recently told me that most political point-scoring between City Hall and the government can be dismissed as noise, but that TfL colleagues have had a brutal time of it. What’s the point of having a job at the transport heart of a great global city when some clown upstream with a malign agenda won’t let you do it? The departure of finance chief Simon Kilonback looks ominously like a “brain drain” prediction coming true.
Thirty years ago, when a Conservative administration had stripped London of its strategic layer of government, London’s business community was at the forefront of the campaign to restore it. The eventual creation of the Greater London Authority and Transport for London have been integral to the city’s revival and for the national good. Now another administration of the “party of business” is eroding that autonomy and efficacy out of vanity, self-interest and spite. If their former Mayor is brought down by “partygate” Londoners should dance in the streets.
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