Let’s not pretend that making friends would be easy. People around Boris Johnson who followed him upstream from City Hall loathe and despise Sadiq Khan and are quite certain they could run London better. Hostile forces of our centralising national government have been muscling in on mayoral autonomy since even before the pandemic took hold. No London Mayor would want to take that lying down.
The invasion of Transport for London is but the most advanced. Robert “Westferry” Jenrick took a large and showy axe to Mayor Khan’s proposed new London Plan pre-lockdown. Johnson and co snipe and gloat about the capital’s violent crime, pretending they have some magic remedy. If you were Khan, leading a Labour-leaning city and seeking a second mayoral term, the desire to fight these attackers and the electoral logic of being seen to do so would surely be motivating you too.
And yet jarring questions loom. If the Mayor and the PM don’t make peace, what will be left to be worth winning? If London cannot recover its drive, what will become of the rest of the country?
Johnson knows perfectly well, not least from his own time as Mayor, that the longer the capital’s economy remains subdued, the worse it is for the rest of the UK: an estimated ten per cent of national output comes from its stricken central core alone. He also ought to know that a crushed and martyred mayoralty, self-exiled to the Crystal, its functions annexed back to Whitehall in a deadening reversion to pre-GLA times, would make it harder, not easier, to coax the capital back to life.
Yet it has become only too easy to imagine the office of a twice-victorious Mayor Khan being reduced to a puny shadow of its former self by the time of the delayed election next May. Half of such significant powers as Mayors have – over the planning system, the transport network, the distribution of affordable housing funds and the priorities of the Metropolitan Police – could already be hacked away by then, with the rest under ominous review. Where is the “Boris” who beat the drum for greater devolution? The champion of London infrastructure investment? The radical creator of the London Finance Commission?
Assuming that version of Johnson still exists (or ever truly did), he needs to stop posing on his conquered “red wall”, forego the “levelling up” soundbites and start levelling with reality. He might need help from his successor. It wasn’t only Khan who was narked by London government’s apparent exclusion from a reported discussion about sealing off the capital in the event of a renewed Covid surge – his letter of protest was co-signed by cross-party London Councils chair Peter John. Yet somehow the Mayor needs to cajole Johnson into calling off his commissars and instead help him to help London get back in gear.
It’s worth remembering where the biggest push for a new, devolved, London-wide layer of government came from in the 1990s – the capital’s big business sector. London First was in the forefront of persuading national governments, beginning with the Tory one of John Major, to create a successor to the abolished Greater London Council. Today, they are calling for more devolution, not less. The Mayor needs to align himself more closely with such voices and help turn them up to maximum volume.
He also needs to persuade. To do so effectively will mean joining with others to put together a new, big picture of a successful London future, emphasising its capacity to adapt and to re-grow for the benefit of Brexit Britain as a whole. Johnson is idle about detail, but he likes a nice big picture – as one of his mayoral advisers once put it, if you tell him an exciting story you stand a chance of keeping his attention.
He’ll like the big picture more if it shows him attractive ways to lessen the ravages of the coming recession, that dark cloud that will appear with the autumn. Ministers and advisers might deride anything Khan says or does, but the Johnson who acts on what his fans dignify as “instinct” and others regard as a blend of self-interest and whim doesn’t always do what they tell him – exhibit one, HS2.
Going beyond appeals to set politics aside and going out of his way to seek peace with the PM might entail some risk for Mayor Khan: supporters want him fighting Tories, not making overtures to them; his party leader’s long game is unlikely to entail joining him in speaking up for “rich London”; Andy Burnham would complain, and there would be no guarantee of a reward. You can see why he might think it would be pointless.
But Labour is dominant in the capital and the Tory mayoral candidate is floundering. Khan has room for political manoeuvre, scope for power trade-offs and an interest in achieving compromise. Both sides could present one as being in the national interest. Both sides could well be right.
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