Cameron is the biggest political loser of the Olympics

Booed by the crowds and overshadowed by Boris, the PM has not had a good Games.

It's not hard to identify the political winners of the Olympics. Boris Johnson, who never missed an opportunity to make a populist intervention, and whose named was chanted by thousands during that extraordinary speech in Hyde Park, is now spoken of as a potential prime minister by both the left and the right, and is increasingly viewed as a threat by Labour.

Beginning with the Queen's skit with James Bond (the highlight of the Olympics ceremony for voters, according to polling by YouGov), the royal family has seemed more at ease with itself than for decades. The BBC's coverage has reminded us of the virtues of public broadcasting, whilst the armed forces, filling the void left by G4S, have renewed their bond with the public.

But who are the losers? Tory MP Aidan Burley's curt dismissal of Danny Boyle's ceremony as "leftie multi-cultural crap" did little for his career prospects, and with a slim-ish majority of 3,195 in Cannock Chase, a seat that Labour held from 1997-2010, he is unlikely to be returned at the next election. Mitt Romney's suggestion that the UK was unprepared for the Olympics, inaccurate as it turned out, damaged his reputation at home and abroad, with Boris openly mocking a supposed ideological ally ("There's a guy called Mitt Romney who wants to know whether we're ready"), David Cameron quipping that it's easy to run an Olympics in "the middle of nowhere" (a reference to Romney's management of the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games), and Carl Lewis concluding that "some Americans just shouldn't leave the country".

The biggest loser, however, is the current occupant of 10 Downing Street. Rather than enhancing Cameron's reputation, as some Tories hoped, the Olympics have diminished it. The cringemaking photo posted by the No 10 Twitter feed of the PM watching the boxing at home while wearing a Team GB polo shirt looked like what it was: a desperate final attempt to reap some political benefit from the Games. Rather than serving as the proud leader of a successful nation, Cameron has spent more time fending off criticism of the government's school sports policies and dismissing fears that the Olympics have reduced economic activity. As Prime Minister and the leader of a party that won just 36 per cent of the vote at the last election, Cameron was never likely to survive the Games unscathed. But what makes the negative press coverage even more galling is the adoration for the prince across the Thames - Boris. While the crowds cheer for Boris, they boo for Cameron. For the first time since he became Prime Minister, conservative commentators are asking how long he can continue. After two weeks in which Britain has rarely seemed happier, few could have imagined a less happy end to the Games for Cameron.

David Cameron watches the boxing: "a desperate final attempt to reap some political benefit from the Games".

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.