Boris Johnson and Sadiq Khan are never happier than when they are publicly flogging each other. The mayor of London and his Tory predecessor have gotten into 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 left TfL’s finances in “robust, good order” and Khan had bankrupted the transport body were met with a lightning quick rebuttal from the mayor. Khan, doubtlessly sporting a broad smile, lashed the Prime Minister on Twitter for being economical with the truth (Johnson left TfL with £9bn of debt) and mocking his new Downing Street TV studio.
Just 24 hours later and the pair were shadow boxing through their respective staffs, with Number 10 press secretary Allegra Stratton calling Khan’s review into legalising cannabis “a waste of time” because City Hall does not have the power to decide drug policy. Khan’s team hit back, pointing to surveys about the popularity of the policy in London and branding Johnson as out of touch.
All this follows a familiar pattern where both of them can hammer the other in order to score points among their respective bases. It’s a win-win, really.
Johnson is diabolically unpopular in London, according to the latest polls, while the Tories’ coalition of voters see the London Labour party as pretentious navel-gazers. Either can pick a public fight with the other and score some easy political points among their own base, while avoiding any real scrutiny on their records. The political pantomime often grabs headlines and drives the news agenda, giving them encouragement to continue the game.
Despite being ostensibly very different politicians and people, Khan and Johnson have stark similarities in the way they operate. Former Tony Blair spinner Alastair Campbell recently said that Johnson and his team spends an inordinate amount of time playing political games and setting traps for opponents. This has more than a kernel of truth to it. Again and again the government tries to play wedge politics with Labour over issues of race and culture or tries to engender rows with Brussels. Johnson’s populist streak is well-known and works to great effect.
However, the same could well be said of Khan’s communications strategy. Khan made himself one of the loudest cheerleaders for a second Brexit referendum, while also taking every chance to remind people of his war of words with Donald Trump. Both of these positions are easy ones to take considering the average Londoner’s dual hatred of Brexit and the former President. Even Khan’s most ardent fans would admit the mayor takes full advantage of this to rack up political points.
Take the current mayoral election: two of Khan’s biggest policies – a call for rent control and a report into cannabis legalisation – are not even in City Hall’s remit. They are central government issues being used as a part of an election strategy to position his opponent as the Prime Minister and not his actual opponents.
We see it whenever he refers to his actual Conservative opponent Shaun Bailey. The mayor will never, ever refer to Bailey by his name, but will instead label him as “the Tory candidate” or “Boris Johnson’s Tory candidate”. By doing this, Khan doesn’t let Bailey into his game with the PM and instead plays SNP-style grievance politics by making the election a fight with central government.
It could be argued that all this is just politics as usual and it’s just a bit of fun for media-types and politics obsessives. But, it could also be argued that this kind of politics has robbed London of substantive debate about the future of the city.
TfL has serious challenges to overcome, with the body no longer able to fund itself thanks to the drop-off in passengers during Covid-19. It desperately needs a long-term funding solution from the government and a complete restructure for it to be able to operate at the level required for a world class city. But, neither the current mayor or the former mayor seem interested in this debate and would rather take pot shots at each other to score political points.
This sort of PR warfare also inevitably means London will continue to drift away from the Conservatives electorally, making it easier for the government to ignore the capital. If the Tories really have given up on London, as suggested by many pundits, and chose to instead use it as a pawn in the culture war then the entire country will suffer economically as a result.