There is, of course, precedent for this type of thing. In 1986, affronted by the impertinence of Ken Livingstone, Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher completed the abolition of the Greater London Council, the city-wide body which had grappled for 21 years with the capital’s huge housing, transport and pollution problems. For half of its existence Tories had run the GLC, but Livingstone’s leadership of it since 1981 had driven The Iron Lady mad. Arguments mustered for expunging it included that the capital’s 32 boroughs could do the GLC’s jobs in a more “streamlined” way. Critics rightly said the true motivation was political pique. Are some of today’s Conservatives dreaming of repeating history?
The eight-strong London Assembly Conservative Group is not without strengths: the experience of Tony Arbour; the precision of Gareth Bacon; the independence of Andrew Boff. Their colleague Tony Devenish is, for all I know, immensely kind to animals and plants and a more rounded individual than his sometimes peevish public manner suggests, but an article he has written for Conservative Home fails to elevate him to that select blue Assembly pantheon.
It pains him, you understand, to advocate “inspectors” replacing the Greater London Authority, set up under Tony Blair in 1999 as an (admittedly cautious) revival of London-wide government, but he regrets that it will have to be done. The problem, you see, is, well…and here Devenish’s case begins to look a little thin. It offers no agenda for enhanced devolved powers, perhaps along the lines so keenly advocated by Boris Johnson when he was London Mayor: control over the spending of property taxes; more funds for affordable housing; full TfL regulation of suburban rail. It provides no vision of how a post-Covid, post-Brexit engine room of the UK economy would function and thrive better under a Tory Mayor. It just moans a lot about Sadiq Khan.
There are respectable critiques of Mayor Khan’s first term performance and, to be fair to Devenish, he briefly touches on one of these: it is true that some, including Labour borough leaders, find Khan personally distant, politically over-defensive and insufficiently interested in the larger strategic themes that brought the best out in Livingstone when he was restored to the head of London government in 2000. It is also felt in some broadly sympathetic quarters that Mayor Khan has been too quick to pick fights with the government when a more co-operative approach might have produced better results for the city.
But mostly Devenish just wildly over-claims for Johnson’s eight years as Mayor and lists a bunch of Khan policies he happens not to like, indulging freely in the electioneering claptrap we seem destined to have to live with from his Assembly colleague, the Tory mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey, from now until the postponed mayoral election day. (It is, to repeat, utter rubbish to blame Khan for the congestion charge going up and operating for longer hours. The government required this as a condition of its financial bailout of TfL and could have vetoed the details had it wished to – unless, of course, the letter of 14 May from Grant Shapps setting all this out was, in fact, an unusually subtle work of political satire which got sent to the wrong address).
That’s the problem with elections: sometimes your side loses. And the problem Tories in London have had throughout this century is that they’ve been losing a lot more than they have won. Even at last year’s general election, when Jeremy Corbyn’s clueless Labour was being evicted from parliamentary seats all over England, the Tories could not improve on their meagre London haul of 21 out of 73. Johnson’s mayoral wins in 2008 and 2012 were unusually good days at the ballot box. Bailey has trailed spectacularly in every mayoral opinion poll there’s been. The Tories are in deep electoral disfavour across most of the very capital of the nation they run. Could it really be that some of them think the solution to their City Hall problem is to re-enact Thatcher’s folly? Or at least to stealthily so reduce mayoral autonomy that much the same thing is achieved?
It is striking that Devenish applauds the Johnson’s government’s recent clod-hopping intrusions into City Hall affairs, including by the unfortunate Robert Jenrick. Last month, the Telegraph – more of a Boris Johnson fanzine than ever of late – raised the question of abolition on its comment page. You can’t help wondering if some of the several Mayor Johnson lieutenants now ensconced in and around 10 Downing Street are having similar not very bright ideas. After all, like Devenish, some them appear to honestly believe their boss’s generally indifferent eight-year City Hall tenure was an unrepeatable triumph and that London really would be much better off were it back under their remote control.
Post-Covid, Brexit Britain needs more devolution not less – and not only to London, if it is serious about “levelling up”. As for London’s Tories, they would serve themselves and their city better by giving some overdue thought to how to get more Londoners to vote for them.
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