What should we make of Boris Johnson’s lie that Sadiq Khan bankrupted Transport for London? The first, and in many ways most important thing, is that it once again shows that the press struggles to cover out-and-out lies from politicians. Johnson’s claim is not “disputed”, it is not “arguable”: it is as false as if I were to claim that today in PMQs, Johnson pulled down his trousers, announced “I’m going to do to the coronavirus what I’m doing to this despatch box” before proceeding to rub himself against it.
Transport for London has a day-to-day operating deficit, but one that it has successfully closed year-on-year for the last five years. Its financial reserves also grew in that time. TfL has faced three hits to its budget in the past decade. Two of them you can blame on decisions made by London mayors: the loss of its operating grant in 2017-8, which makes TfL the only public transport network in Europe to be funded day-to-day solely by fares and local government, a decision rubber-stamped by Boris Johnson. It is uncontroversial to say this is the fault of the present Prime Minister. The second is Sadiq Khan’s decision to freeze fares. Given that the Mayor of London in reality has just two funding levers directly available to them thanks to the loss of the direct grant, increasing fares and increasing the mayoral precept (the top-up to council taxes, which is also capped by central government), it was very foolish to bind his hands.
Then there’s the delay in the construction of Crossrail, which could be bad decisions made by Boris Johnson at the start of the project, bad decisions made by Sadiq Khan during its middle period, or simply bad luck.
More worryingly is the trend you can’t blame anyone for, other than perhaps Steve Jobs and Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the iPhone and the World Wide Web respectively: the decline in the number of passengers on London transport. The biggest single driver of this is the easy availability of ride-hailing apps, from Uber to Lyft to FreeNow to Addison Lee. This change in how Londoners travel has serious implications for transport policy, not just in London, but across the United Kingdom and indeed across the world.
But the impact of all of these doesn’t change that the story of the last five years - Johnson’s final year in office and Khan’s first term - is one in which the operating deficit has closed not widened. It is simply untrue to say that Khan ‘bankrupted’ TfL. TfL’s economic woes, like that of the country as a whole, cannot be separated from the novel coronavirus and its economic consequences.
Johnson’s lie reveals two interesting trends in politics in addition to the media problem. The first is that British politics has not yet come to terms with devolution. The argument Johnson should be taking about TfL is that decisions taken by him and Sadiq Khan put the body in good shape going into the crisis, because fundamentally Khan’s record is his record. He should be appropriating Khan’s successes, not creating a fictional record of failure.
The second is that Johnson has no clue how to fix the massive, coronavirus-shaped problem that has emerged in London’s economy and may not return for a very long time, if at all. Neither, for that matter, does Shaun Bailey, the Conservative mayoral candidate. If they did, then they would have a serious, fact-based dividing line to draw with Sadiq Khan, who also has yet to set out a vision to navigate London through the changed world. But they have nothing of substance to add so instead they tell lies that Londoners do not believe and defy credulity instead. Electorally, that doesn't matter, because the Conservatives are not going to win the London mayoralty and their path to Downing Street no longer runs through London. But the health of the British economy is important to the Conservatives' electoral success - and that no Conservative appears to have a plan to revive what Johnson himself once rightly described as the “engine room” of the British economy will have big economic consequences for us all and may have political ones for the Conservatives as well.