Dave Hill: Flailing London Tories are failing to deceive over congestion charge increase

Dave Hill: Flailing London Tories are failing to deceive over congestion charge increase

Conservatism has not been doing good business in London of late. At last year’s general election, while Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party was being hammered everywhere else, the Tories failed to increase the already low number of seats they held in the UK capital – just 21 of London’s 73 MPs are Conservatives. At the 2018 London borough elections, the Tories fell even further behind Labour overall and currently control only eight of the 32 boroughs. And at the last London Mayor election, Tory candidate Zac Goldsmith was heavily defeated by Sadiq Khan after a poisonous campaign even some fellow London Tories were embarrassed by.

You might think a political party with such a strong record of winning general elections would have done some serious and ruthless thinking about how to improve its standing in the capital city of the nation it habitually rules. Instead, they seem determined to persuade as many Londoners as possible that they are devious, visionless and a bit dim.

It is hard not to laugh at the desperation and dishonesty of London Tories’ attempts to blame Sadiq Khan for the increase in the Central London congestion charge, which comes into effect today. Their mayoral candidate, Shaun Bailey, who was struggling to make any impact on the race for City Hall before the coronavirus forced the postponement of the election, has been frantically accusing him of lying about being required to hike the charge as a condition of the government’s financial bailout of Transport for London.

The wording of that condition does not, to put it kindly, exactly strengthen Bailey’s case. Item “h” in a list of things transport secretary Grant Shapps told TfL it must agree to in his letter to the Mayor of 14 May detailing the terms of the bailout is shown below:

Screenshot 2020 06 22 at 11.26.29

Precisely how the words “widen the scope and levels” of the congestion charge (and the LEZ and ULEZ) can possibly be said to mean anything other than “you’ve got to put it up” remain a puzzle to me. I have put out appeals on Twitter, including to London Assembly Conservative Group transport spokesman Keith Prince, seeking enlightenment to the contrary, but have received no convincing response. Prince’s happy-go-lucky manner brightens proceedings at City Hall, but his assertion of 23 May that most Londoners “won’t fall for” Khan’s assertion that “his ridiculous decision” to increase the congestion charge to £15 was forced on him by the Tory government may be over-optimistic – even by Prince’s high standards.

Other Tories and fellow-travellers have made weak attempts at sophistry, saying the size of the increase and the enlargement of the hours in which in which the charge will operate were suggested by Khan and TfL, which means they must be Khan’s fault.

All of his leaves out the inconvenient reality that, as the Shapps letter explains, the government has set the terms on which the bailout has been provided. It has also imposed what it calls a “London Covid Transport Task Force” on TfL, saying, to quote the Shapps letter again, that “during the [financial] support period” it “agrees to joint action and oversight” by this mystery body (whose terms and references have only just been published, even though Shapps’s letter described them as being “attached”).

Please explain to me how this does not mean that Shapps or the enigmatic “Task Force” – who membership is still to be made public – was at liberty to reject whatever proposals to “widen the scope and levels” of London’s suite of road-pricing were brought forward and withhold the bailout. It is even being suggested that the Mayor and TfL slipped the hike to £15 a day past the DfT and its London colonising force, without so much as a touch of the forelock. How likely does that seem to you? Whatever, neither has voiced any outrage. Maybe Bailey, Prince and company should direct their ire at Shapps instead.

It’s not even as if Khan has form for putting the c-charge up: his 2016 election manifesto explicitly ruled it out, and only now, after more than four years in office and under government diktat, has it risen to a higher level then it was when he won office.

His Tory critics also seem to have forgotten that Boris Johnson, although he halved the size of the congestion charging zone by scrapping its Western Extension (WEZ), also increased the charge in each of his mayoral terms, in January 2011 and June 2014. Perhaps if he hadn’t axed the WEZ, he wouldn’t have needed to.

All told, the Tories’s congestion charge attack is exceptionally feeble and crumbles upon contact with the mildest of challenges. As such, it serves as a symbol for Bailey’s mayoral campaign as a whole. I’ve often felt sympathy for him, fighting what has looked from the start like a losing battle, but it is hard to regard his approach to this issue as anything other than a ruse to deceive.

In fact, London has long needed a lot more road pricing, though a truly radical long-term solution to its congestion and air quality problems would include a far more sophisticated, fair and discriminating system than the current, very dated, one. If London’s Tories really want to get back in tune with majority opinion among Londoners and stop looking like a fringe gang of flailing dinosaurs, perhaps they should consider supporting one.

After all, congestion charging is not at all inconsistent with Conservative economic philosophy. As Ken Livingstone enjoyed remarking when he introduced it to London, Milton Friedman, guru of Thatcherism, was quite a fan.

This article was update at 16:20 on 22 June 2020 to acknowledge that the “task force” terms of reference have finally been published.

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