You don’t have to be a monarchist to have enjoyed the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee binge, as the many London street parties and the heaving bars of Soho testified over the long bank holiday weekend. The celebratory mood nourished a feeling that things in the capital might at long last, be looking up.
The Elizabeth Line is running and Bank branch of the Northern Line is open again. Covid seems to be behind us. Soon, we will mark the tenth anniversary of the London 2012 Olympic & Paralympic Games and recognise – with the likely exception of a few miserable journalists – that the UK capital has delivered by far the most impressive Olympic Park legacy in Games history.
But that anniversary will also serve as a reminder of a still recent time time when London, far from being used as a political punchbag as at present, was hailed by Labour and Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition governments alike as a great national asset, a truly global city for the nation to be proud of and which beneficially welcomed the world. It is extraordinary to recall that Boris Johnson, London’s Mayor at the time, was at the forefront of singing London’s praises. Today, he leads a supposedly pro-devolution national government which erodes the powers and autonomy of his successor and endlessly seeks to score anti-London points by gesture and by deed.
A Financial Times columnist recently wrote that Johnson’s government seems to have little clear purpose other than setting traps for its opponents and gathering more power unto itself. Some would add to this the preservation of Johnson himself at Number 10, no matter how soiled his reputation or desperate his attempts to curry favour with Conservative MPs, who are the only people at the moment who can remove him as Prime Minister.
There is strong speculation that a vote of no confidence in Johnson will be triggered in the coming week, and if not then by the end of the month, following two by-elections the Tories look set to lose. But if that vote takes place and whenever it occurs the expectation seems to be that Johnson will survive it and limp on, propped up by lickspittles and fools and still certain in his own mind that he is the great visionary his country needs.
Assuming that is what happens, what will the consequences for London and for Londoners be? It is difficult to feel optimistic. The Johnson administration’s approach to the capital seems founded in Johnson’s apparent belief that his time at City Hall was a story of unbroken triumph and success, when in reality it was largely indifferent: not as bad as his harsher critics from the left proclaim, but nowhere near as effective as Johnson and some of his former mayoral advisers would have you believe.
The government’s exploitation of Transport for London’s financial crisis, brought about by Covid, to force their own, often damaging, priorities on London has been, where the Big Media are concerned, one of the great under-told stories of the pandemic. The removal of Johnson, and with him his unsuitable transport adviser, could surely only be a good thing for TfL, although there would be the risk that he’d be followed as PM by transport secretary Grant Shapps, as slick as he is sly and an accomplished feeder of the anti-London fib machine.
Either way, with the latest short-term funding arrangement due to expire on 24 June, there seem few grounds for optimism. On top of that, an insider tells me that the Department for Transport has never been so dysfunctional, and that prior to the Jubilee weekend, DfT officials hadn’t even been in touch with their TfL counterparts to discuss future funding – a woeful continuation of a well-established pattern.
Meanwhile, key parts of London’s economy, such as construction and hospitality, continue to be hampered by the impacts of Brexit, and the capital’s high poverty rates, their existence still denied by the thin political project that is “levelling up”, are not going to improve while the cost of living soars. The Mayor is using such powers and resources as he has to help address some of these problems, but they are limited.
London’s economy will regain its strength and the whole of Her Majesty’s United Kingdom will benefit, albeit many will be reluctant to recognise it. But deep damage has been done and may continue. Even as the darkest days of Covid give way to the summer months, the road to recovery looks difficult and slow.
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