What should we make of Boris Johnson’s lie that Sadiq Khan bankrupted Transport for London? The first, and in many ways most important, thing is that it again shows that the press struggles to cover out-and-out lies from politicians. Johnson’s claim is not “disputed”, it is not “arguable”: it is as false as if I were to claim that today in PMQs, Johnson pulled down his trousers, announced, “I’m going to do to the coronavirus what I’m doing to this despatch box” before proceeding to rub himself against it.
Transport for London (TfL) has a day-to-day operating deficit, but one that it has successfully closed year-on-year for the past five years. Its financial reserves also grew in that time. TfL has faced three hits to its budget in the past decade. Two of them can be blamed on decisions made by London mayors. The first concerns the loss of its operating grant in 2017-18, which makes TfL one of the only major public transport networks in Europe to be funded day-to-day solely by fares and local government – a decision rubber-stamped by Johnson. It is uncontroversial to say this is the fault of the Prime Minister.
The second is Khan’s decision to freeze transport fares (from 2016 to 2020). Since, without the direct grant the mayor of London only has two funding levers directly available to him – increasing fares and raising the mayoral council tax precept, which is capped by central government – it was very foolish of him to bind his hands.
Then there’s the delay in the construction of Crossrail, which could be due to bad decisions made by Johnson at the start of the project, bad decisions made by Khan during its middle period, or simply bad luck.
More worrying is the trend you can’t blame anyone for, other than perhaps Steve Jobs and Tim Berners-Lee, who brought us the iPhone and the World Wide Web respectively: the decline in passenger numbers on London transport. The biggest single driver of this is the easy availability of ride-hailing apps, from Uber to Lyft to FreeNow to Addison Lee. This change in how Londoners travel has serious implications for transport policy not only in London, but in the United Kingdom and across the world.
But the impact of all of these doesn’t change that the story of the past five years – covering Johnson’s final year in the mayoral office and Khan’s first term – is one in which the operating deficit has closed, not widened. It is simply untrue to say that Khan “bankrupted” TfL. The transport body’s economic problems, like those of the country as a whole, cannot be separated from the novel coronavirus and its economic consequences.
Johnson’s lie reveals two interesting trends in politics, in addition to the media problem. The first is that British politics has not yet come to terms with devolution. The argument Johnson should be making about TfL is that decisions taken by him and Khan put the body in good shape going into the crisis, because fundamentally Khan’s record is his record. He should be appropriating Khan’s successes, not creating a fictional record of failure.
The second is that Johnson has no clue how to fix the huge, coronavirus-shaped problem in London’s economy, which may not be resolved for a very long time, if at all. Neither, for that matter, does Shaun Bailey, the Conservative London mayoral candidate for 2021. If they did, then they would have a serious, fact-based dividing line to draw with Khan, who has also yet to set out a vision to navigate London through the changed world. But they have nothing of substance to add, so they instead tell lies that Londoners simply do not believe.
Electorally, that doesn’t matter, because the Conservatives are not going to win the London mayoralty and their path to Downing Street no longer runs through the capital. But the health of the economy is important to the Conservatives’ electoral success – and that no Conservative appears to have a plan to revive what Johnson himself once rightly described as the “engine room” of the British economy will have big economic consequences for us all, and may have political ones for the Tories as well.