Boris Johnson has let London down on air pollution. Photo: Getty
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Air pollution in London is set to haunt Boris Johnson again

Air pollution in London will haunt the Mayor of London once again, as his appearance at parliament's Environment Committee today marks an annus horribilis for air quality in the capital.

“B*llocks” Boris Johnson tweeted, as he responded to findings from one of the country’s top emission scientists, Dr David Carslow. The outburst was the Mayor’s unique response to evidence that levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution in Oxford Street were unparalleled in the world. The Mayor’s appearance before members of parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee today will likely be followed more closely than most and not simply by those waiting for the Mayor to push the boundaries of the English language. Following his recent announcement that he intends to return to Parliament, the commentariat will be watching closely to see how the Mayor fares in his likely new stomping ground from 2015.

Despite initially trying to dodge the appearance by telling Committee Chair Joan Walley MP his schedule “makes it impossible for me to attend” the Mayor will today face parliamentary scrutiny. Aside from the hubbub created by the Boris Johnson PR circus arriving in Westminster, there will be many who will be watching the Mayor and feeling deeply uneasy about what little progress has been made on tackling London’s silent killer. Many of these concerns will endure as the Mayor’s attention is inevitably taken by loftier ambitions.

Air pollution, and the Mayor’s failure to really get to grips with the issue, has dogged his administration from the very beginning. The "flagship" Low Emission Zone  has been progressively watered down and the Mayor’s latest proposal for an Ultra Low Emission Zone won’t even be implemented until 2020 – something that I have advocated bring forward. Despite the fanfare the ULEZ now bears little resemblance to the original promise of a “scheme that would aim to ensure all vehicles driving in the centre of the capital during working hours would be zero or low emission”. As part of the project, the Mayor has unveiled plans to allow vehicles that do not meet certain European green standards into this supposedly “ultra low” zone for a £10 fee. Whilst this will act as deterrence to some, it will still allow some of the dirtiest and most polluting vehicles into the very heart of London. The message seems to be, you can drive the dirtiest vehicles, but only if you can afford to pay.

All this comes at a time when the scientific evidence of the health impact of air pollution is growing day by day. It is a matter of scientific fact that, by adulthood, a child growing up by a main road in London will suffer markedly reduced lung growth compared to the average person. As well as respiratory conditions, this has a whole array of knock on health impacts including links to stroke, heart disease and lung cancer.

Yet in spite of this evidence the Mayor has sought to play down London’s air pollution crisis. Commenting during this spring’s two smog episodes he said “I'm urging people just to have a little balance here, I cycled this morning and it seemed perfectly fine to me". The Mayor’s comments came just as it was confirmed by Defra that London was experiencing ‘Level 10’ air pollution –the worst possible.

When Boris Johnson was first elected, solving London’s poor air quality was one of the biggest policy challenges facing the city. As he sets his sights on pastures new it seems we should expect little more from this Mayor. As a consequence of the toxic mix of acquiescence, botched policies and watered down proposals, air quality will sadly remain London’s biggest environmental challenge and one that will be high in the in-tray for the next Mayor.

Murad Qureshi AM is Labour’s London Assembly environment spokesperson

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Hopes of an anti-Brexit party are illusory, but Remainers have a new plan to stay in the EU

Stopping Brexit may prove an impossible task. Remainers are looking to the "Article 49 strategy": reapplying for EU membership. 

The Remain campaign lost in the country, but it won by a landslide in parliament. On 23 June 2016, more than two-thirds of MPs voted for EU membership. Ever since the referendum, the possibility that parliament could thwart withdrawal, or at least soften it, has loomed.

Theresa May called an early general election in the hope of securing a majority large enough to neutralise revanchist Remainers. When she was denied a mandate, many proclaimed that “hard Brexit” had been defeated. Yet two months after the Conservatives’ electoral humbling, it appears, as May once remarked, that “nothing has changed”. The government remains committed not merely to leaving the EU but to leaving the single market and the customs union. Even a promise to mimic the arrangements of the customs union during a transition period is consistent with May’s pre-election Lancaster House speech.

EU supporters once drew consolation from the disunity of their opponents. While Leavers have united around several defining aims, however, the Remainers are split. Those who campaigned reluctantly for EU membership, such as May and Jeremy Corbyn, have become de facto Brexiteers. Others are demanding a “soft Brexit” – defined as continued single market membership – or at least a soft transition.

Still more propose a second referendum, perhaps championed by a new centrist party (“the Democrats” is the name suggested by James Chapman, an energetic former aide to George Osborne and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis). Others predict that an economic cataclysm will force the government to rethink.

Faced with this increasingly bewildering menu of options, the average voter still chooses Brexit as their main course. Though Leave’s referendum victory was narrow (52-48), its support base has since widened. Polling has consistently shown that around two-thirds of voters believe that the UK has a duty to leave the EU, regardless of their original preference.

A majority of Remain supporters, as a recent London School of Economics study confirmed, favour greater controls over EU immigration. The opposition of a significant number of Labour and Tory MPs to “soft Brexit” largely rests on this.

Remainers usually retort – as the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, put it – “No one voted to become poorer.” Polls show that, as well as immigration control, voters want to retain the economic benefits of EU membership. The problem is not merely that some politicians wish to have their cake and eat it, but that most of the public does, too.

For Remainers, the imperative now is to avoid an economic catastrophe. This begins by preventing a “cliff-edge” Brexit, under which the UK crashes out on 29 March 2019 without a deal. Though the Leave vote did not trigger a swift recession, a reversion to World Trade Organisation trading terms almost certainly would. Although David Davis publicly maintains that a new EU trade deal could swiftly be agreed, he is said to have privately forecast a time span of five years (the 2016 EU-Canada agreement took seven). A transition period of three years – concluded in time for the 2022 general election – would leave the UK with two further years in the wilderness without a deal.

A coalition of Labour MPs who dislike free movement and those who dislike free markets has prevented the party endorsing “soft Brexit”. Yet the Remainers in the party, backed by 80 per cent of grass-roots members, are encouraged by a recent shift in the leadership’s position. Although Corbyn, a Bennite Eurosceptic, vowed that the UK would leave the single market, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have refused to rule out continued membership.

A group of Remainers from all parties met in the Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s office before recess, and they are hopeful that parliament will force the government to commit to a meaningful transition period, including single market membership. But they have no intention of dissolving tribal loyalties and uniting under one banner. A year after George Osborne first pitched the idea of a new party to Labour MPs, it has gained little traction. “All it would do is weaken Labour,” the former cabinet minister Andrew Adonis, a past Social Democratic Party member, told me. “The only way we can defeat hard Brexit is to have a strong Labour Party.”

In this febrile era, few Remainers dismiss the possibility of a second referendum. Yet most are wary of running ahead of public opinion. “It would simply be too risky,” a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Thoughtful Remainers, however, are discussing an alternative strategy. Rather than staging a premature referendum in 2018-19, they advocate waiting until the UK has concluded a trade deal with the EU. At this point, voters would be offered a choice between the new agreement and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be history. The proviso is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms, rather than the standard ones (ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). Some MPs suggest agreeing a ten-year “grace period” in which Britain can achieve this deal – a formidable challenge, but not an impossible one.

First, though, the Remainers must secure a soft transition. If the UK rips itself from the EU’s institutions in 2019, there will be no life raft back to safe territory. The initial aim is one of damage limitation. But like the Leavers before them, the wise Remainers are playing a long game.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear