Tony McNulty is an unlikely diplomat. As a whip during Labour's first term, he was seen as one of those parliamentary bruisers you don't mess with. This was the time when Labour was pulling out all the stops to prevent Ken Livingstone from becoming the party's candidate for Mayor of London. It won that battle, but lost the war. Not only was Livingstone elected as an independent, but he has forced a contrite Prime Minister to readmit him to the party on his own terms.
Now Livingstone is starting his second stint as mayor, this time as Labour's man, and ministers such as McNulty are effusive in their praise for him and his record, especially on the biggest issue facing the capital. "I've been saying for quite some time now that although there are plenty of improvements that need doing, there's a good story to tell in terms of transport in London," McNulty says, which is just as well given that, as parliamentary under-secretary at the Department for Transport, he is responsible for . . . transport in London. Or at least he is responsible for those bits of transport that Livingstone is not responsible for but would like to be responsible for. Confused?
The bottom line is that the two men have to work with each other, and McNulty now talks a good Livingstone talk. "We're talking about a system that moves three million passenger journeys a day on the Tube, 4.5 million on trains, six million on buses, 150,000 on the Docklands Light Railway, much under-sung, and, yes, it goes wrong and, yes, there are huge capacity and other issues over the next 20 to 30 years, but let's not start from the premise that London's transport is a basket case, is in crisis, because it isn't. Transport For London (TfL) - the offshoot of the Greater London Authority - does a brilliant job."
Top of the list of achievements is what McNulty calls the "bus revolution", which he says has won international repute. The idea of the "middle-class and professional workforce moving from their cars into buses" is unheard of elsewhere. The flip side of that is the congestion charge introduced by Livingstone in February last year in the face of extreme media hostility and extreme government fence-sitting. I suggest to McNulty that Tony Blair and those around him showed a characteristic lack of courage, waiting to see the public's reaction before giving a view on the project. Were they frit? "We were never frit," he says, before trying to make light of the equivocations of the past. "Given that the government put the legislation in place, if it was a huge success then it meant the government was very brave to move in that direction; if it was a failure, it was the mayor's fault."
Now that the congestion charge has been deemed to be a resounding success, the government wants to snatch some of the credit. McNulty points out that other cities in the UK and across the world are looking to copy it. None the less, he admits there are problems - particularly shopkeepers complaining of a downturn in custom. "We still need to bottom out the impact on the retail sector. It may be, as Ken and others said during their election campaign, that we should be looking at free days, especially around Christmas time." He suggests that an earlier end to the enforcement time - moving it from 6.30pm to 6pm, as Livingstone has hinted at - might pay dividends. But he says he will not muscle in on the highly sensitive question of extending the charging zone westwards. That, McNulty insists, is a matter for the Mayor.
On the general point, he is adamant: "There is a debate to be had collectively across London about how we deal with urban congestion." He says that some other form of cordon-linked congestion charge may be the answer, but he excludes any new large-scale road-building for the city and its outskirts, any going back to the plans of old for major radial roads around the capital. "The more we can strip the party politicking out of congestion", the more the rhetoric of "pro-" or "anti-motorist" can be abandoned, the better, he adds.
The buses and the congestion charge provide the rosier part of the picture. What about the Tube and suburban rail services - which, for all McNulty's professed optimism, many Londoners would regard as woeful? McNulty drops a hint that the Mayor may soon acquire the control of suburban rail services he has keenly sought. (Why else would Livingstone have agreed to rejoin the Labour Party in January, thereby helping it out of a pickle, if he had not put down certain demands?) In a few weeks, Alistair Darling, the Secretary of State for Transport, will publish a review of rail services as part of a bigger transport plan. McNulty says the government is looking at "devolution" for parts of the railways. The proposals from TfL are, he adds, "well researched", and they are being given "very serious consideration". I ask him if, by the end of July, Livingstone might go on holiday a happy man. "You might say that; I couldn't possibly."
London seems unable to stop growing. It is predicted to subsume another 800,000 people over the next 12 years. So can it cope? Livingstone says he needs an extra £1bn - over and above the money already committed - just to keep the system running. In March, TfL published an apocalyptic report warning of choking roads, "unimaginable" rail overcrowding and damage to other aspects of the economy if the further investment is not made.
So will the Mayor's calls be answered in the forthcoming com-prehensive spending review? "I would be astonished if any elected Mayor of London ever came to me and said, 'That's fine, Tone, I think we've got enough money from the government now. You put your feet up, mate.' It's Ken's job to argue the case for more money across the piece," McNulty says. The question is, how much? The Mayor's relations with the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, have remained cool, although not quite as icy as they once were.
In perhaps the most crucial area of transport policy for London, sorting out the Tube, it is central government that has called the shots. The public-private partnership got off to a bad start, and the National Audit Office has just published a report criticising the complexities and costs of the contracts and questioning whether improvements will be delivered. Livingstone fought it in the courts. Now he is saddled with it. "I understand what Ken is saying about the PPP. In the first year, things have been slower than anticipated," McNulty says. "We are in year one of a 30-year programme. I'm sure things will be bedded in better in the second year. I've watched the relationship between TfL and the infracos [the private consortia running the trains, stations, tracks and signals]. These take time to develop. We will get to a stage where there will be a strong working relationship between them." On his re-election, Livingstone warned the infracos that he was watching them carefully. McNulty describes that as a "shot across the bows", adding, in what I take to be irony: "These are just the early formative embarrassing glitches that occur at the start of any fruitful 30-year-old relationship."
Part of the problem has been London's inability to plan long-term infrastructure projects. Crossrail is perhaps the most dismal example. The project linking east and west London has been on the drawing board for 20 years. McNulty says the government is firmly in favour . . . in principle. It is still sitting on a report by Adrian Montague, which it was passed in February. McNulty describes the report as a "very serious piece of work" that will be published "shortly". Advocates of the scheme hope that the go-ahead will have been given - even that initial work may have started - by early next year, when a team from the International Olympic Committee will come to assess London's bid for the 2012 games. McNulty insists, however, that Crossrail will not be operational before 2013-14 at the earliest.
The IOC highlighted transport as one of the problems with London's bid, making clear that the infrastructure was not there to take athletes and spectators efficiently to and from the main venues. McNulty disputes this, but says more work will have to be done to explain the transport facilities when the final bids are entered. He claims London compares well with transport facilities in Atlanta and Sydney. He argues that the expansion to the east, especially the Thames Gateway project, marks a turning point. "So often in the past, London has grown in whatever direction and the infrastructure has followed. This is a fantastic opportunity for London."