Boris Johnson will face a backlash from south-east England at the next general election if his levelling-up agenda squeezes transport funding for London, the capital’s mayor has warned.
The opposition Labour party has made gains in London in recent years, including seizing dozens of council seats from the Tories in the May local elections. “That’s one of the fruits in London of anti-London policies from the government,” Sadiq Khan, the Labour mayor, said.
“If you think May 2022 was bad for them in London just wait until there’s a general election.”
Johnson has made levelling up, the redressing of regional economic inequalities, one of his signature policies. Khan told the Financial Times in an interview that at the next election there would be tactical voting “not seen since 1997 [the last time the Tories were removed from office] . . . because we are at the receiving end of levelling up”.
“The evidence from this May is that the more they punish London, because they’ve got a Labour mayor, the better we do in elections,” he said. “The tribal politician in me says ‘keep doing that to make us more popular’ but, as a patriot who wants to be mayor for all of London, I say this is damaging London, the capital city, and is bad for our country.
“My message to Boris Johnson and those responsible for levelling up, you can’t be surprised if those of us on the receiving end, being made poorer, respond by voting for anybody but the Tories.”
The biggest flashpoint between Khan and the government is over public transport funding. Transport for London, which Khan chairs, has received £5bn in four tranches to help with the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic.
Khan wants a fifth short-term bailout to support operations until next spring and negotiations are going to the wire ahead of a June 24 deadline. “From next April we will not need operating subsidy unless there’s another — God forbid — pandemic,” Khan said.
The mayor also wants a multiyear pledge of capital investment to ensure the renewal of existing transport infrastructure.
Khan warned that London’s transport system would enter a long period of “managed decline” unless the government heeded his warnings.
“There is still no sign of a deal being reached yet which beggars belief. This is a £10bn business living hand to mouth, month to month,” he said. A failure to reach a deal would lead to an 18 per cent cut in bus services and 9 per cent cut in Underground services, he claimed.
Khan’s arguments about London being starved of investment will raise eyebrows elsewhere, given the recent opening of the glitzy £19bn east-west Elizabeth line.
Previous studies of government transport funding have shown northern England receiving less transport investment than the capital.
But the mayor said Johnson’s levelling-up agenda would cut investment in London. Of £60bn earmarked for transport in England in the next three years, the north-west is receiving £465 per head compared with £332 in London, he said. Meanwhile London was shut out of a new £7bn regional transport fund and a new £3.6bn towns fund last year.
Ministers question whether TfL’s old business model is sustainable, given changing work patterns after the pandemic.
Khan said savings were already being found: the north-south Crossrail 2 and Bakerloo line extension have been “mothballed”. A 4 per cent cut in bus services is on the table.
The mayor, who won the 2021 election with 55 per cent of the vote, said he was determined to stand for a third successive term in 2024.
But he was lukewarm on Labour’s prospects at the next general election, saying that “hard thinking” and “heavy lifting” were needed for the party to have the “right retail offer”.
“If the general election was tomorrow I’m not confident we would win, wouldn’t be the biggest party. but it’s probably not until late 2024.”
Khan said he was “pro trade union” but feared significant economic damage to London from strikes next week on the railways and TfL.
He said he was “really, really frustrated and disappointed” by the industrial action, blaming ministers. “My worry is that [transport secretary] Grant Shapps and Boris Johnson think this is a virility test . . . almost as if they want it to go on for the rest of this summer.”
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