Labour have been scathing. “Jo Johnson should at least be intimately acquainted with the problems London faces,” a spokesperson for the regional party said. “After all, his brother caused most of them.” The Greens have not been kind. “What a complete lack of imagination to put another Johnson into a London job,” remarks Siân Berry AM. “Surely he’s embarrassed to accept it.”
But for Johnson himself, Conservative MP for Orpington and kid sibling of former London Mayor Boris, there might be more pressing matters. Now relieved of the soiling task of defending Toby Young, the freshly-appointed minister for London has to work out what his new job entails. He would not be alone in asking, what does a minister for London do?
The post sits within what until yesterday was called the Department for Communities and Local Government but has now been re-invented as the Ministry for Housing Communities and Local Government. This creates one of history’s more painful acronyms, but at least signals that Theresa May’s tormented administration accepts that many more houses need to be built. The capital’s need for this is great, so there’s a cause for Johnson to attach himself to. He would be thanked for it by London politicians across the spectrum, fellow Tory ones included.
Formally, the post entails keeping the House of Commons informed about what London Mayors in particular are doing and serving as a point of liaison between central government and City Hall. Apparently, Johnson and Sadiq Khan get along fine, which might tell us that “Johnson Minimus” (as Jo has been called) can rise above Khan’s relentless criticisms of Johnson Maximus or, who knows, that he agrees with them. Maybe being a fellow Remainer helps.
May has also made Johnson a transport minister under Chris Grayling, who is carrying on as secretary of state. Relations between Khan and Grayling have been noisily impolite on the question of the latter’s declining to devolve controls over more suburban services to Transport for London. However, word is there’s been a partial thaw and, as an Outer London MP, Johnson should be more aware than most of the traumas endured by Londoners who depend on national rail links to get them to work.
That could help a lot, as Gareth Bacon, leader of the Conservative Group at City Hall, stresses: “We welcome Jo’s appointment. He’s not only a London MP, he has a good feel for the issues here and especially in the commuter belt. Combining his two roles is a good thing.” This has raised expectations elsewhere too. Liberal Democrat AM Caroline Pidgeon, a transport specialist, is already on his case. “If a minister for London cannot cannot persuade central government to progress rail devolution then questions have to be asked about his ministerial role,” she says.
There is a sort of precedent for such twinning getting results for the capital. Johnson’s predecessor but one as minister for London, Gavin Barwell, simultaneously held another post in the communities department, housing. Khan was very public in his appreciation for the tidy wedge Barwell provided him with for funding various sorts of affordable homes.
The minister for London job was invented by John Major in 1994, a first step towards filling the gap created by the abolition of the Greater London Council. He gave the job to John Gummer, the environment secretary. Gummer was followed by Labour’s Nick Raynsford, a key architect of the restoration of London-wide government under Tony Blair. Subsequent Labour incumbents included Tessa Jowell, who talked Blair into backing an Olympic bid. But David Cameron did away with the post, Barwell was only in it for a year and Greg Hands, who followed him, for just half of that.
To Johnson now falls the opportunity to help change London in ways that won’t be as big or as noticed as what his older brother did, but could be appreciated by more than just fellow Conservatives and do the capital much good. Let’s wish him well.