Boris's tube and bus fares "freeze" isn't a freeze

All prices will still rise by at least 3.1% at a time when wages are rising by just 0.8%. But this remains a significant concession to Labour.

After his defence of untrammelled capitalism last week, is Boris Johnson now taking inspiration from Ed Miliband? At first sight, this morning's Evening Standard headline, "Boris Johnson announces London Underground and bus fares freeze", suggests so. But read on and it transpires that this "freeze" is actually an inflation-linked rise. Most fares will now merely rise by 3.1%, rather than the expected 4.1% (although travelcards will still rise by the larger figure). For passengers, whose pay rose by an average of just 0.8% in the most recent quarter and who are already paying the highest fares in the world (up by 60% since Boris became mayor), that remains a steep increase.

But given his initial reluctance to act, this is still a significant concession by the mayor to his political opponents. In September, 24 Labour MPs signed a Commons motion demanding that fares rise by no more than inflation. It stated: "Transport for London has reported unbudgeted operational surpluses for the previous three years and is showing evidence of regularly under-anticipating fares income and overestimating other expenditures (We) call on the mayor of London to use his discretion to freeze fares at RPI (retail price index) for 2014, easing the pressure on ordinary Londoners during the current cost of living crisis."

In his recent speech on "the great Tory train robbery", Sadiq Khan, the shadow London minister and a potential mayoral candidate, said: "Boris Johnson has an abysmal record of hiking fares year on year that has contributed massively to the cost-of-living crisis in London. Since he became Mayor the cost of a single bus journey has increased by 56 percent. In 2008 a single pay-as-you-go journey on a bus or tram cost just 90 pence. The same journey today will cost you £1.40. The price of a travel card from zones 1-6 has increased by £440 a year. That’s a bigger hike than even gas and electricity bills.

"In a few weeks’ time, the Mayor will be announcing the rate of fares for next year. Londoners simply cannot afford another inflation busting increase to the cost of travel. The Mayor must recognise that Londoners are struggling more than ever before and that their budgets can’t keep stretching forever. He must take action to ease the pressure for ordinary Londoners by freezing fares at least at the rate of inflation for 2014."

Boris has now done just that. But after having their expectations raised by Labour's promised freeze in energy prices, voters are unlikely to thank him for it. 

Boris Johnson addresses delegates at the annual CBI conference in London on 4 November 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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