Transport secretary pledges £2bn for ‘smoother and safer journeys’ as UK recovers from coronavirus

The TfL bailout was a public flogging of Sadiq Khan – but he may use the move against the Tories

It didn't take long for Conservatives to start celebrating the stringent terms of the government's £1.6bn emergency fund to City Hall

Stefan Boscia@@Stefan_Boscia
Saturday 16 May 2020 13:31
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Transport for London (TfL) was just hours away from declaring technical bankruptcy on Thursday, before the government stepped in to hand over a £1.6bn emergency bailout to City Hall.

However, the last-minute package also came with a list of stringent restrictions, which appear to have clipped Sadiq Khan’s wings and taken away some of his greatest powers as mayor of London.

They include putting government representatives on the board of TfL, forcing an increase in fares, a rise in the congestion charge and scrapping free travel for children.

The bailout terms effectively stripped Khan of a bulk of decision-making powers as the head of TfL and acted as a very public flogging of the Labour mayor.

It did not take long for Conservative MPs and London Assembly members to commence the political point scoring and flag waving.

Foreign minister, and Boris Johnson ally, James Cleverly was quick to revel in Khan’s humiliation and quick to point the finger at the mayor for TfL’s financial woes.

Conservative London Assembly leader Susan Hall labelled him “incompetent”, “a disgrace” and a failure as mayor.

The characterisation of the necessary bailout as completely Khan’s fault seems to ignore the fact that TfL has suffered a 90 per cent decline in revenues during the Covid-19 lockdown – a burden very few private companies could survive without any form of government intervention.

TfL’s finances doubtlessly could have been in a better position – the body had racked up £11bn of debt before the corona crisis – but it is dishonest to characterise the bailout as inevitable.

Furthermore, Khan’s fare freeze over the past four years did not do as much to blow a hole in the TfL deficit as much as the government retracting its £700m annual TfL subsidy did.

The conditions posed on City Hall for the bailout seem to be political as much as they are practical.

The political gelding doled out to Khan certainly has the appearance of an intentional attack on a popular opponent less than 12 months until a mayoral election is to be fought.

The forced increase in fares is eminently sensible and was already likely, after Khan pledged to end the fare freeze on all transport except buses in his now delayed re-election campaign.

So too the hiking of congestion charge as London encourages more people to avoid driving in the capital.

However, one has to question if the government would have taken away key TfL decision-making powers from Khan in the same way had he been a Conservative.

Could you imagine a David Cameron-led government imposing such stark conditions on Boris Johnson when he was mayor? I, for one, could not.

We’ve seen the government, rightly, almost unconditionally back businesses suffering similar fates during the crisis, but a public entity managed by a Labour mayor was clearly beyond the pale.

In any case, the events of the past two days are another reminder of the intense personal dislike many Tory MPs, councillors and members have for the Labour mayor.

One reason for their ire is likely because Khan is the most successful Labour politician since Tony Blair, and has been a rare beacon of light in a disastrous decade for the party.

However, it is also rooted in the ongoing culture war in London and beyond that Khan is engrossed

The mayor is more well-known among the general public for his staunch support for a second Brexit referendum and for his row with US President Donald Trump than for his house building or transport policies.

He has also been a conspicuous supporter of diversity and immigration, as per his “London is Open” slogan.

These sorts of actions have rubbed a lot of opponents the wrong way, particularly when taken into account with the ongoing culture war – working class/Middle England vs metropolitan elites – that the Brexit referendum exacerbated.

Accusations of being smug and complacent are never far from the lips of Conservative enemies when Khan becomes a topic of conversation, and he has been a constant target of attacks from sections of the right-wing commentariat.

If the stringent conditions placed on City Hall on Thursday were in any way connected to this innate enmity towards Khan, then it was a foolish move that may grant him more sympathy than anything else.

Before the May mayoral election was postponed, Khan said he would fight the election on the issue of rent controls and if the power to impose them should be devolved to City Hall.

The sly tactic was in effect making the election a fight between himself and Boris Johnson’s government, which is unpopular in London, instead of between himself and his opponents.

By hammering Khan in bailout negotiations and lording it over him afterward, the Tories may find they have just gifted Khan further ammunition for that fight next May.

Stefan Boscia is City A.M.’s political correspondent.

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