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21 December 2009

Boris Johnson scrutiny to be stepped up

Mayor is key new target for Labour strategists

By James Macintyre

Labour strategists will be focusing scrutiny in the coming weeks on the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who they believe could turn from a Tory asset into a liability, party and City Hall sources have revealed to Newstatesman.com.

Johnson’s thinly disguised ambitions to lead his party are known in Westminster to have caused tensions with David Cameron, whose aide was reported to have sent a “Mafia” style text message to the mayor in October, after the New Statesman first reported the divisions in July.

Now, Labour will step up its scrutiny of Johnson’s policies, highlighting particularly the vastly above-inflation fare increases that will hit Londoners when they return to work on 4 January. This comes after Johnson’s 2009 fare increase, in which London transport fares went up by 6 per cent overall, but with some fares rising more steeply. These included an 11 per cent increase in a single bus fare on Oyster — meaning the price of a single bus journey by Oyster has risen by one-third since Johnson was elected, from 90p to £1.20. Johnson is committed to further annual above-inflation fare increases.

Party activists see the increases as the clearest indication of how “out of touch” Johnson is with ordinary Londoners. A party source said: “[Johnson’s] bonhomie may work when things are going well but will wear thin with voters when they are being punished by policies that are driven by his own political choices. The fare increase, combined with his protection of bankers and opposition to the new top rate of tax, fits into the national picture — that the Tories stand up for the few, not the many. Far from being an asset to the Tory party, Johnson has the capacity to cause them damage.”

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Many in the London Labour party, and particularly those scrutinising Johnson closely at City Hall, believe that his desire to be popular makes him sensitive to criticism and that he is “vulnerable” to heavy political fire. “We are going to expose him as a ‘do-nothing’ mayor who nonetheless costs Londoners dear,” one said.

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The fresh moves come after Johnson was exposed over the attempt to instal his ally, the former editor of the Evening Standard Veronica Wadley, as the arts supremo for London — despite her rejection by a majority of panel members responsible for interviewing the candidates.

And it comes just days after Simon Fletcher, the key former aide to Johnson’s predecessor, Ken Livingstone, was appointed by Labour to strengthen its team in advance of the general election.

Labour City Hall insiders believe that while Johnson enjoys a high media profile nationally, his support in London is “soft” and may be eroded as his high-fares policies bite.

One source alleged that Johnson is introducing the new fares on a Saturday “to dissipate media coverage over the weekend rather than it being focused on 4 January when most Londoners go back to work”.

The source added: “He will no doubt fall back on his pattern of blaming others for the increase: for example, his claim that fares were kept artificially low under Ken Livingstone. But the fare rises are so large — the price of a single bus journey will have risen by exactly one-third in just 18 months — that he will be unable to wriggle out of the blame.”

Labour will press hard on the point that the fare increase is down to Johnson’s own political choices. The transport minister Sadiq Khan said at the time the fare increase was announced: “The mayor’s decision to raise bus fares by a staggering 12.7 per cent is a matter of choice, not necessity. If he hadn’t chosen to scrap the western extension of the congestion zone and scrap a large part of London’s bus fleet, then he wouldn’t have needed to impose this swingeing fares increase. We would have put Londoners first, which Boris has failed to do. Instead, London is paying the price of the mayor’s foolish campaign promises.”

The removal of the western extension of the congestion charge has withdrawn an estimated annual £70m from Transport for London’s projected budgets. The cancellation of the £25 gas-guzzler charge on the most polluting cars driving in to the congestion zone has already lost London an estimated £50m each year from the transport budget. Millions are being added to the transport budget every year by removing bendy buses. Some have estimated the cost to be as high as £28m a year, though Johnson may drive this down by reducing the specification in the new contracts, and thereby reduce services. Boris Johnson’s own figures show that an extra 30,000 cars will drive into central London every day when he removes the western extension.

According to the mayor’s own answer to the London Assembly: “TfL estimates that removing the western extension to the central London congestion charging scheme would increase traffic entering the extension area during charging hours by 10-15 per cent over current levels. Traffic circulating within the area would rise by some 7-12 per cent.”

“Johnson’s focus on changes to the congestion charge in a small part of central London, when Londoners in the rest of the city will have to pay more to use public transport, shows he is out of touch with the majority of Londoners,” a City Hall source said.

Labour activists are now set to mobilise their first London-wide campaign against Johnson since his election. In addition, London trade unionists will attack what they are calling “Boris Johnson’s Bad Fare Day”. Members of Unite, which represents bus workers, are angry at what they see as a “race to the bottom” over pay and conditions despite soaring fares. They will say: “Many London bus companies are trying to freeze drivers’ wages, and Transport for London is giving contracts to other bus companies based on rock-bottom wages. In London, the bus companies are operating a ‘race to the bottom’, including freezes or even cuts to drivers’ pay, cuts in conditions of work, and bringing in a two-tier workforce. Johnson’s fare increase is not going to pay the drivers a decent wage; the fare increases are paying for his reckless transport policies.”

Context:

The headline figures on the fare increase are:

* A single bus journey by Oyster up 20 per cent to £1.20

* A weekly Oyster bus pass up 20 per cent to £16.60

* Six-zone peak single Tube fare by Oyster up 10.5 per cent to £4.20

* A five-zone off-peak single Tube fare (outside Zone 1) up 18.2 per cent to £1.30

* Most Oyster pay-as-you-go Tube fares up by 20p per trip.

Overall Tube fares will rise 3.9 per cent and overall bus fares by 12.7 per cent.