Dave Hill: Johnson government must start listening to London if it wants UK to recover

Dave Hill: Johnson government must start listening to London if it wants UK to recover

“The fact that London is intimately connected with the rest of the UK can be seen in any area of London’s activity,” the Mayor of London said. “A pound invested in London can drive jobs and growth around the country. When London grows, the rest of the country grows.”

Not the words of Sadiq Khan, although he’s often made the same argument. Rather, they were penned by his predecessor, Boris Johnson, for the Foreword of a 2014 GLA Economics report. “The government should invest in London’s future for the good of the whole of the UK,” Johnson went on. He added it that it should enable London government to make best use of such investment “through the greater devolution of powers”.

What is Boris Johnson up to now? Ah, yes. He’s the UK Prime Minister who has permitted some of the most unsuitable and inept members of his team to spend much of last year doing the exact opposite of what he advocated when he was at City Hall.

Johnson now colludes in the populist deception that London’s economic power has grown at the expense of the rest of the country, rather than to its benefit. Instead of ensuring that Transport for London quickly received the funding it needs to see it through the pandemic, he has allowed his transport adviser and his transport secretary – not necessarily in concert – to push it around, mess it about and exploit its Covid-inflicted plight to spin anti-London fibs.

His education secretary made a complete hash of the now-abandoned plan to re-open the capital’s primary schools. And his communities secretary spent most of 2020 pulling rank on the capital’s current Mayor – elected with a bigger mandate than Johnson ever secured – over his key planning policy document, the London Plan. The London devolution settlement, which has been in mostly good effect for 20 years, has been crudely and contemptuously eroded.

As with so much Johnson’s government does, it is hard to discern any cohesive strategy behind all this. Part of the objective appears to simply be to beat up the Labour Mayor because the Tories upstream in Westminster don’t like him. Another part might be that Johnson and ministers know only too well how badly they will need London’s economic resilience to sustain the country’s post-Covid recovery, and are therefore frantic to take closer control of it, immodestly convinced that they know best. And, of course, being seen to be upbraiding London – that is, the aspects of it that its enemies dislike and resent – helps camouflage the void where a proper “levelling up” programme should be.

It’s time the PM got reacquainted with the things he used to say he believed in and why they were good ideas. He has every self-interest in doing so. In short-term electoral terms, every time one of his unappealing lieutenants makes a fool or a pompous ass of himself, the chances of Tory mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey avoiding a massive defeat in May’s rescheduled mayoral election are further reduced, while those of the Tory party emerging from next year’s borough elections even worse off than it already is are increased.

More importantly, there is that vital national need for London to, as the PM’s slogan has it, “build back better“. It might be that by the time of the next general election, no amount of frantic signalling to the fabled “Red Wall” that Boris of the North is on its side will make up for a lack of solid progress. The sort of progress that is desired – and is desirable – will not be achieved without spending a lot of public money to make it happen – money that, as things stand, can only be generated by and from within London.

As a wise friend observes, it’s probably futile to hope politicians will stop behaving like politicians (and Mayor Khan, by the way, is no slouch in that respect). But if the Johnson administration wants to help the whole country and itself, it should set about forging a more co-operative and sympathetic relationship with the capital from now on, be that in the form of taking notice of its business bodies, consulting its local authorities or treating Johnson’s successor in City Hall with respect. The message is a simple one: stop doing London down and start listening to it instead.

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