Five years ago, when he was London Mayor, Boris Johnson overshadowed the launch of a report he had commissioned into arguments for and against the UK leaving the EU by revealing his intention to become an MP again. Media excitement about this confirmation of something even residents of Planet Zog already knew meant the report, compiled by Johnson’s economic adviser Gerard Lyons, went largely ignored, as did the speech Johnson made at its unveiling. Now, with the vastly re-empowered Prime Minister Johnson apparently preparing to cement his new-found status as Cock of the North by lavishing public investment on that region, both the report and the speech reward revisits.
“Every hobnob in the world comes from Brent,” Johnson declared in his introductory address. “And if you are catching a bus in Las Vegas, the chances are you will use a bus shelter made in Hayes.” Such was the breadth and scale of global markets for goods and services originating in the capital. This, he proclaimed, would continue to be case whether or not the UK stayed in the EU. Doctor Lyons set out the massive extent to which the UK depends on London, with its £350 billion economy at that time accounting for close to a quarter of the UK’s total (as it still does), though he also argued that not enough had been invested in infrastructure and house building.
This reminds us that the best thing about Johnson’s largely indifferent eight years at City Hall was that he let other people deal with the big, dull, really important stuff and got on what he is best at – showing off. He was a vocal and persistent tub-thumper for London, making the case for Crossrail and Tube upgrade cash and even joining with the boroughs in calling for greater freedom to borrow against assets to build more homes. And he never stopped reminding national government that London’s output was vital to national prosperity. In the wake of the 2012 London Olympics, he produced an 80-page document, laying out the case to be made to his fellow Tories upstream that “investment in London can help drive the rest of the UK economy” to the year 2020 and beyond.
This Londoner will not begrudge cities and towns in the North whatever help they receive from the populist southern toff to whom they have handed an 80-seat majority, though they might be wise to check that they still have all their fingers after shaking on any deal he offers them. But among the many sobering realities our former Mayor will have to deal with before too long is that Labour-dominated, Remain-leaning London will be, if anything, still more crucial to keeping Brexit Britain afloat in the years and maybe decades to come.
Like Labour, Johnson spoke often during the general election campaign of “levelling up” the UK, a coded endorsement of anti-London sentiment designed to win support from voters in Jeremy Corbyn’s now shattered “red wall” of seats across the Midlands and the North. But he knows better than most that without a thriving capital, any regional policy that benefits the people of Wrexham and Workington will be harder to achieve.
When Johnson first became London Mayor in May 2008, the full force of the financial crash was about to be felt. Unlike pretty much everywhere else, London’s economy weathered that storm pretty well. And in 2017/18, the huge sum of £34.3 billion raised in London was redistributed to other parts of the UK, just the largest in a succession of tax surpluses that have limited the damage done by the crash and austerity everywhere else. The despised capital city, with its bankers and immigrants and “metropolitan elite”, has, for ten years, done the heavy lifting other cities and towns have been incapable of.
One of the many failings of the Corbyn Left has been its dimwitted embrace of the so-called “north-south divide” as a binary social injustice issue, simultaneously swallowing and feeding the simplistic idea that a radical “rebalancing” can be achieved by shoving “rich London” to the back of the investment queue and moving a bunch of Treasury officials to Bolton, or wherever John McDonnell had in mind. Less dependence on the capital and the wider south-east is a desirable national goal, but the economies of London and Not London are intimately linked and public investment is not a zero sum game.
If Boris Johnson really wants to “unleash” the potential of Britain post-Brexit, as he repeatedly claimed during the election campaign, he can’t begin to do it without London. He knows that perfectly well. What will he do about it?
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