Boris Johnson and Sadiq Khan are never happier than when they publicly flog each other. The Mayor of London and his Tory predecessor have found themselves in countless scraps over the past year, this week’s row over Transport for London’s (TfL) funding situation is just the latest.
Johnson’s claims that he had left TfL’s finances in a “good and sound condition” and that Khan had bankrupted the transport agency were met with a lightning-quick rebuttal from the mayor. Khan, no doubt sporting a broad smile, criticized the PM on Twitter for his economy with the truth (Johnson left TfL with $ 9 billion in debt) and mocking his new Downing Street TV studio.
Read more: Issue 10 calls Sadiq Khan’s cannabis review a ‘waste of time’
Just 24 hours later, the pair were phantom boxing through their respective teams, with No.10 Press Secretary Allegra Stratton calling Khan’s review of cannabis legalization a “waste of time” because the town hall does not have the power to decide drug policy. Khan’s team fired back, pointing to polls about the popularity of politics in London and calling Johnson out of touch.
This all follows a familiar pattern where the two can hammer each other in order to score points among their respective bases. It really is a win-win situation.
Johnson is devilishly unpopular in London, according to the latest polls, while the coalition of Conservative voters see Labor in London as a pretentious navel. Either can choose a public fight with the other and score easy political points from their own base, while avoiding scrutiny of their records. Political pantomime often makes headlines and livens up the news agenda, encouraging them to keep the game going.
Read more: Manifesto for the election of Mayor Sadiq Khan in London: everything you need to know
Despite being ostensibly very different politicians and people, Khan and Johnson have some stark similarities in the way they operate. Former Tony Blair spinner Alastair Campbell recently said Johnson and his team spend excessive time playing political games and setting traps for opponents. It has more than a kernel of truth. Time and again, the government tries to play the politics of divide with Labor on issues of race and culture or tries to engender quarrels with Brussels. Johnson’s populist trend is well known and works to great effect.
However, the same could well be said of Khan’s communication strategy. Khan made himself one of the loudest cheerleaders for a second Brexit referendum, while seizing every opportunity to remind people of his war of words with Donald Trump. Both of these positions are easy to take given the double hatred of the average Londoner of Brexit and the former president. Even the most ardent Khan fans would admit that the mayor is taking full advantage of this to rack up political points.
Take the current mayoral election: two of Khan’s biggest policies – a call for rent controls and a report on the legalization of cannabis – are not even the purview of city hall. These are questions from the central government used as part of an electoral strategy to position his opponent as the prime minister and not as his real opponents.
We see him whenever he refers to his true Tory opponent Shaun Bailey. The mayor will never, ever refer to Bailey by name, but instead will refer to him as a “Tory candidate” or “Boris Johnson Tory candidate.” In doing this, Khan is not letting Bailey get into his game with the Prime Minister and instead is playing a policy of grieving the SNP by making the election a fight with the central government.
You could argue that this is all just politics as usual and it’s just a little fun for media types and politics obsessives. But, one could also say that this type of policy deprived London of a fundamental debate on the future of the city.
Read more: London mayor election: Shaun Bailey pledges to reverse Khan’s 9.5% council tax increase
TfL has serious challenges to overcome, the body no longer being able to finance itself thanks to the depot of passengers during the Covid-19. It desperately needs a long-term funding solution from the government and a complete restructuring to be able to function at the level required for a world-class city. But neither the current mayor nor the former mayor seem interested in this debate and would prefer to beat themselves up to score political points.
This kind of PR war also inevitably means that London will continue to move away from the Conservatives in electoral terms, making it easier for the government to ignore the capital. If the Conservatives have truly abandoned London, as many experts suggest, and have chosen to use it instead as a pawn in the culture war, the entire country will suffer economically.
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