You do not have to be a Boris Johnson fan to recognise that being Prime Minister at this point in UK history is not a walk in a Kentish lorry park. Today, the PM is involved in frantic talks to avoid food shortages after France closed its border to prevent the new, fast-moving strain of the coronavirus moving frictionlessly across the Channel. This emergency comes two days after the nation gathered round the TV to watch its leader announce that the Christmas 2020 he had vowed to save from the pandemic would be cancelled after all, and that Londoners would be placed under severe new public health restrictions.
It may be that Johnson, seemingly reluctant to take any decision that might make him look like something other than the jolly joy-bringer of Brexit Britain, once again put off facing reality until it was too late to stave off the worst of it. But few politicians have had a wholly prescient pandemic so far: only two weekends ago, the Mayor, who can claim to have been ahead of the game on rapid lockdowns and face-coverings, was encouraging Londoners to go out and shop. And although Rishi Sunak has picked freely from the magic money tree, it cannot forever bear fruit if there is no economy to feed its roots.
Let’s acknowledge, then, that Johnson’s task has been difficult, that the right balances are hard to strike and that the virus’s new variant might partly excuse the lurching U-turn Santa Boris’s sleigh made on Saturday. But, for this Londoner at least, forgiveness would be easier had Johnson and his government gang not been doing down the capital all year.
It started in earnest back in March, just before the pandemic took hold and the mayoral election was postponed. Communities secretary Robert Jenrick, soon to become embroiled in the Westferry Printworks affair, wrote a letter to Sadiq Khan which not only formally directed him to make alterations to his proposed new London Plan, the capital’s master development blueprint, but also delivered a denunciation of the Mayor’s record in office.
If that was crude political grandstanding design to help the hapless Tory mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey, at least it recognised the existence of the London mayoralty and its powers, albeit exploiting the limits of them. But in August, when Jenrick published his planning reform White Paper, the Mayor of London was not even mentioned.
Before that, as the capital moved to cope with Covid, Jenrick sent a pompous letter to the City’s John Barradell, chair of the pan-London resilience effort, which some read as a snub to Khan. Maybe, maybe not. But the fact that it was delivered on the same day as health secretary Matt Hancock publicly contradicted the Mayor’s approach to managing London Underground services hardly lessened the impression that the national government thinks London regional government can safely be treated with contempt. Jenrick’s high-handed attitude towards the Mayor over the London Plan has continued into December.
Then we come to transport. Rather than racing to Transport for London’s rescue when Covid wrecked its finances, Johnson and co have used the crisis as an opportunity to seize control of it, bend it to its will and extract political advantage. In the House of Commons, Johnson lied that TfL’s plight is “entirely” the fault of Khan, and TfL bosses have had to negotiate rescue funding with not one but two of his more egregious appointees.
One of them is transport secretary Grant Shapps, a more artful exponent of anti-London fibbing than the PM. This is the man who in December 2019 assured the electors of Richmond Park that a re-elected Conservative government would see that a temporary replacement for the stricken Hammersmith Bridge would be in place in no time. One year on, nothing of the kind has occurred. Instead, there’s been a lot of performative blame-gaming designed to gratify the duped Tory switchers of the Red Wall.
The other is Andrew Gilligan, Johnson’s erstwhile avid media supporter who is now his transport adviser. Gilligan is a bumptious bicycle freak with the subtlety of a turd in a lift. He has had an easy ride from most of the media, partly because a lot of liberal journalists share his obsession with cycling and as yet unproven belief that building special lanes for it on London’s roads will massively increase the very small number of Londoners who move around the city on two wheels. But some Tory media are less keen. And plenty of Tory politicians, including London MPs, are not happy with what they see as the uncontrolled pursuit of a personal agenda at the expense of motorists and businesses who are giving them grief about it.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of Kensington & Chelsea Council’s removal of a bike lane briefly installed on Kensington High Street, the episode indicates that some London Tories regard Gilligan as a menace to their future employment. It is no surprise that Kensington MP Felicity Buchan and West Central AM Tony Devenish called loudly and publicly for the bike lane to be removed: both represent constituencies that could fall into Labour hands. If Johnson wants to avoid London becoming even more anti-Tory than it already is – and retain support among London Tory MPs – he would be wise to bring Gilligan to heel.
The list of snipes, snubs and centralising power plays goes on. The National Infrastructure Strategy declares that “levelling up” the UK will entail “pivoting investment away from London”. Education secretary Gavin Williamson, hero of the summer’s exam results shambles, threatens Greenwich Council with legal action over its leader’s wish that the borough’s schools should close for Christmas a little early to stop the spread of Covid. Would he have done that to Essex County? VAT-free shopping for overseas visitors must be axed because the scheme is “largely centred on London“. Months of repeated pleas from not only the Mayor but also a host of business groups for targeted help for Central London’s hospitality, tourism and cultural sectors, so crucial to the economy of the entire UK, have gone ignored.
It was the aforementioned Felicity Buchan who noted in the Commons recently that even acknowledging the truth – one the former Mayor Johnson sang out loud and clear when he was at City Hall – that London’s economy is of vital national importance has become unpopular. She might have added that no “levelling up” programme will ever be realistic without London’s businesses and tax exports to pay for it.
On Saturday, Richard Burge, chief executive of the London Chamber of Commerce & Industry, expressed his anger with Number 10 and the PM. Johnson, he wrote, “has allowed his typical whimsy of hoping that everything will be fine to obstruct his duty to act in a prudent and timely manner to protect the economy of his capital city and his country”. It’s hard to disagree. And the worst may be yet to come.
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