Amid the gloom, some glad tidings. Coronavirus is disappearing from the capital. Once the worst-hit region in the UK, London is surging ahead in its recovery. Seventeen per cent of Londoners are now believed to be immune. This is inspirational, not just for regions lagging behind but in providing a compelling case for easing the city’s lockdown. The Government’s ill-timed and indiscriminate quarantine measures have made it utterly crucial to kickstart domestic growth. Yet the UK’s economic powerhouse remains under lockdown.
Good thing that we London-dwellers have been blessed with a globally-minded Mayor, then? Sadly, Sadiq “London is open” Khan is missing in action. Instead of fighting to get the city moving, he has only hampered its recovery by hiking congestion charges. His decision to slash underground journeys meant cramming commuters into packed tubes. Under his watch, Transport for London has become a hotbed of waste, protectionism and mismanagement.
Though progress remains stubbornly slow, developments suggest the Government is finally rethinking both its one-size-fits-all approach to lockdown, and its indulgent attitude towards Khan’s leadership. A new taskforce, jointly chaired by Khan and Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick, will look to “restart” London’s economy. The latter appointment bodes well. Jenrick has had a good “coronavirus war”; getting rough sleepers off the streets, restarting construction projects and spearheading deregulation measures. He epitomises the anti-Sadiq tendency; making sensible decisions without fanfare.
With Mayoral elections looming, however, the Conservatives must also contend with the forces of revisionism. Already, Khan is attributing TfL’s £1.6 billion government bailout to the shock of Covid-19, and it is vital that the Tories do not allow this narrative to gain traction. Though no one could expect TfL to weather the shock of a 90 per cent drop in incomes under lockdown, City Hall’s finances were in a parlous state long before the pandemic.
While TfL operated at a loss, Khan indulged in costly gesture politics; banning “junk” food and and political adverts (he made an exception for the People’s Vote campaign), leaving a £13 million financial hole. He doubled his own PR budget and ramped up City Hall staffing spending. To court favour with the electorate and vested interest groups, he scattered giveaways like confetti, leaving many travelling for free when they could easily afford it. Though his grandstanding played to the vanities of “liberal” Londoners, it was built on arrogant foundations; the expectation of infinite subsidy and an assumption that the city belonged to Labour forever.
This pandemic – and the patchy response across the four regions – has exposed the limits of Britain’s devolved settlement. Though this taskforce looks unlikely to give City Hall the radical shake-up it deserves, it is heartening to see Westminster finally defend its corner. London is too important to be in the hands of a showboating mediocrity.