Nick de Bois is the former MP for Enfield North and served as the BackZac Campaign Chairman.
Nine months into Sadiq Khan’s mayoralty he has enjoyed a relatively calm honeymoon period and seemingly enjoys the popular support of Londoners. Scratch the surface however and he is indeed fortunate to be in such a position since, as the keen observer will know, he has taken advantage of his first nine months to dump core election pledges shamelessly.
Gone within weeks (four to be precise) was his blanket pledge to freeze fares for all, which never enjoyed the support of Transport for London (TfL) when he made it the centre piece of his campaign to become Mayor, and was equally ridiculed by his main opponent as undeliverable.
The result of his broken promise is, that from this week, hundreds of thousands of people who use Travelcards, Oyster cards, or pay-as-you-go caps on contactless cards, will not benefit from his key election promise that he would freeze all fares. At its best it was disingenuous, at its worst it was a downright lie.
Remember his commitment to make every housing development have 50 per cent affordable housing? Gone, that’s now an “aspiration”. Two million trees planted during his mayoralty? Vanished, or perhaps more aptly, axed – now it’s simply to increase the number of tree’s “by five per cent” – well short of the election pledge.
What needs to be understood about Sadiq Khan is that he is a politician who recognises that making promises and cynically breaking then early in the life of his term in office should not harm his future electoral chances. The generosity of the British public and particularly Londoners in this case is that they always give a new incumbent the benefit of the doubt and don’t hold them to account on detail the way political contemporaries do. In short, he understood that making sweeping populist pledges and breaking them was in the machine politician’s handbook on how to win elections and then how to govern.
Rather than demonstrate any humility towards the electorate he resorts to the time honoured practice of the professional politician – the more you repeat something the more acceptable it becomes. His Twitter account alone shamelessly boasted over twenty times in December his fares deception: “I’m making commuting more affordable for Londoners“; despite this not being the reality.
His cynicism continues as scrutiny of his spending plans demonstrates, not least in the 2016 TfL business plan. Look closely and it’s clear he is racking up huge debts, particularly long term liabilities. Yet TfL operating costs were under huge pressure long before his election as his own business plan admits, which have only been exacerbated by his fares pledge, albeit a broken, discredited pledge.
To balance the TfL books, the Mayor will have to make cuts of nearly £4 billion over the five-year business plan term, roughly equal to 10 per cent of a £45 billion turnover. That’s huge and no amount of head office efficiency savings will deliver that. His much proclaimed removal of 49 senior managers is relatively insignificant in the huge TfL blackhole he has created. He will be compelled to rewrite supplier contracts, perhaps cut planned projects, and that’s before any inflationary pressures which are on the way for sure.
His own TfL business plan admits not just the size of the challenge and the scope for cuts, but that they have to win more customers across the network, and in particular the bus network where the Mayor concludes;
“To achieve our milestones we must increase the use of public transport in the short run, primarily by attracting customers back to the bus service.”
In fact, they need to increase passenger numbers by at least five per cent, all at a time when another £700m is being invested in getting people off other forms of transport and onto bikes.
His response to criticism? Blame the government. Blame Boris, blame anyone but his reckless pledges made in the full knowledge that they were undeliverable.
The financial challenges facing TfL, including the central government reduction in grant was widely known long before the Mayoral election campaign. The impact of his subsequent fares pledge was challenged during the election campaign not just by his principal opponent but, in an unprecedented fashion by the then board of TfL.
His pattern of behaviour since the election, suggests he will not be “governing for all Londoners” but returning to tribal politics and ritual bashing of the government to advance his own political ambitions which, if reports are to be believed, are as Leader of the Labour Party.
Sadiq Khan was elected on the back of the huge goodwill of many Londoners, which he presently still continues to enjoy. But as he continues to demonstrate that he is yet another machine politician, focussed more on messaging, grandstanding, and scoring political points against the government, he is more than likely to fuel further the increasing elector frustration with politics and politicians.
In methods Alastair Campbell would admire, Khan’s team slipped out a press release in the party season run up to Christmas announcing an 1.5 per cent rise in the Mayor’s Council Tax levels citing both the government and Boris Johnson as the cause of this increase.
Now he is clearly using the Southern Rail strike that has caused enormous distress and frustration to commuters for political gain as his own impotence in the face of union bosses demanding strikes becomes evident. Sadiq Khan’s lack of action makes a mockery of his election pledges. Fair enough, he does not run these particular commuter services but for months we heard nothing from him whilst the talks and arguments raged between management and unions that would so severely affect London.
Finally, on the day of the strike he issued a tweet urging the unions to get back around the negotiating table. So much for leadership. And now we have the spectre of the Mayor turning commuter misery into an opportunity to try to beat the government over the head as he “demands” control of the franchise. Perhaps he could make a better case if he contributed to a solution to the present misery facing commuters first? After all, that’s precisely what he said he would do during his election campaign.
We have seen lots of set piece big announcements with little or no substance from London’s new Mayor. The time is fast approaching when this cynical style of politics will run its course and test the patience of Londoners. The wider political mood is one that demands a new type of politics, one reflecting and delivering for the real needs of people’s daily lives, not the bogus promises of a career politician who sees them as disposable assets on the way to personal career advancement.