Close of observers of the capital and its vital importance to the rest of the UK will have noted a familiar rebuke in Theresa May’s resignation speech. “My focus has been on ensuring that the good jobs of the future will be created in communities across the whole country, not just in London and the south east,” she said, citing what she called “our modern industrial strategy.”
The outgoing Prime Minister’s tortured three years at Number 10 have been marked almost throughout by her pandering to the resurgence of the anti-London sentiment that is an underlying feature of Brexit Britain. The referendum’s outcome can be reasonably read as a rejection of a version of London that many non-Londoners carry around in their heads: an over mighty banker city of “the rich” and “the liberal elite”; a greedy, un-British place colonised by immigrants that “gets everything” in terms of public investment, draining the rest of the country dry.
It is not only May who has sought to exploit and legitimise false depictions of London and its relationship with, in particular, the north of England in recent years. For Nigel Farage, of course, such fallacies are core convictions. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour too peddles this variety of shallow populism, hinting that a Labour government would somehow close “the north-south divide”. But it is May who has been, loosely speaking, in charge of the UK since July 2016 and during that time she has done little to either help London – the real, infinitely varied London – or address the very imbalances between and, crucially, within different regions of England.
A significant detail of the Conservatives’ 2017 general election manifesto was its rather large claim that to “close the gap” between London and everywhere else would be to win “the biggest prize in Britain today”. Yet the devolution agendas of May’s predecessor and earlier Labour governments have lost momentum and who can fail to sympathise with Greater Manchester’s Mayor Andy Burnham and others over repeated delays to rail investment? Some like to contrast such frustrations with the government’s readiness to help bail out Crossrail following the messy recognition that it too would be delayed, alleging that this showed London favouritism. This overlooks May’s continuation of the slow strangulation of Transport for London, contributing to slippages in its investment programme which could have substantial bad implications for a still-growing capital whose economy, like it or not, the rest of the UK heavily depends on.
Meanwhile, the agonies of austerity have continued to be heaped upon London’s local authorities, especially those with the highest levels of poverty to contend with. The more adept those boroughs become at holding their fraying finances together, the more May’s ministers appear to take their ingenuity as a justification for maintaining the squeeze. The ongoing reductions in social housing rents brought in by George Osborne have made it harder for boroughs to meet housing need. Whatever view you take of police effectiveness and the reasons for the rise in knife crime, can the huge reductions to Metropolitan Police budgets, also continued under May, have made tackling it any easier? The one change May has introduced for which London government can be truly grateful has been the lifting of the cap on local authorities borrowing for housing investment – a national policy of particular value in the high cost capital. But the truth is that London is underfunded by national government and the whole country is paying the price.
Under May’s government, London and Londoners have had to endure the abomination of the Windrush scandal and a promise to rehouse the survivors of Grenfell within a timescale those grappling with the catastrophe on the ground – and anyone remotely familiar with the shortage of affordable housing anywhere in the capital – knew were completely unrealistic. It was a particularly crass example of responsibility being pushed on to local government unaccompanied by sufficient powers and resources. Brexit itself, with its uncertainties and impending disruptions, gives strong national interest grounds for fortifying London with wise investment and greater autonomy, yet very little has been forthcoming. For a while after the referendum result, Sadiq Khan was able to tell of productive talks with government ministers, notably the then Brexit secretary David Davis. All of that seems to have slipped into the quagmire.
It is not London-centric or a sign of metropolitan arrogance to conclude that the UK is going to need a strong and productive London more than ever in the years to come. Yet the May government has done the city very few favours. Yes, Brexit has sapped its strength and hogged its time and energy. Even so, May leaves London a dismal legacy. And, just to make our joy complete, let us peep through our fingers at the near political horizon. Scrambling up one hill, we see Boris “no deal” Johnson. Waiting hopefully on another, the dreamer that is Corbyn. London is famed for its resilience. It’s going to need every ounce of it.