Tali Fraser

Is Sadiq Khan paying the political price of Covid?

Is Sadiq Khan paying the political price of Covid?
London Mayor Sadiq Khan, Picture: Getty
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When the London Mayoral election was delayed due to the pandemic, no one was particularly outraged: the prospect of Sadiq Khan’s re-election seemed secure and Shaun Bailey, the Tory challenger, was nowhere to be seen. But that might be changing. Internal polling by the Tory party, leaked to the Telegraph, suggests that Londoners have not been best pleased at the city’s recent fate – and Bailey is only seven points behind, at 35 to Khan’s 42 per cent. This is quite the difference from a March YouGov poll putting Bailey at a fairly hopeless 23 per cent.

It’s not that Bailey has been much more visible – but it’s easy to see why Londoners might have reason to panic. The Chancellor Rishi Sunak is about the only politician to have done anything serious to help city life, with his eat-out-to-help-out scheme. The Mayor’s office hasn’t exactly encouraged a return to the city centre. In fact, he called the government’s drive to get workers back into the office ‘offensive’ and has increased the congestion charge – which is a bit of a push with traffic in city streets lower than it has been in living memory.

London is a city whose businesses thrive on its daytime population of commuters. But during the pandemic the number of commuters has, as to be expected, crumbled – as Gerard Lyons pointed out in his recent cover piece. Of London’s 6.1 million workforce, 800,000 usually travel into the capital, but Covid has caused that to dive. Those coffee shops and stores that are commuter regulars won’t be able to survive. Listeners to The Spectator’s Coffee House Shots podcast will have heard reports of the fate of local businesses, unsure whether to stay open and hope for the return of customers – or just admit defeat and file for liquidation, losing what often took a lifetime to build up.

The finances of Transport for London are obviously taking a hit, with Tube journeys at a third of pre-Covid levels. 

But HM Treasury is bailing it out to the tune of £1.6 billion. Khan had left its finances pretty precariously balanced, having no real way of financing his freezing of tube fares. Free travel for under-18s will also be temporarily suspended, as for over-60s or those with a disability during peak hours.

Sadiq Khan claimed the bailout ‘is not the deal I wanted’, but ‘it was the only deal the government put on the table’. However, the Department for Transport said that the government did not force anyone to raise the congestion charge as a condition of approving the TfL bailout. What’s the truth? Did the mayor stand up for ordinary Londoners? If so, then where has he been? What has he done to encourage the restoration of city life?

Look around at other European cities and you can see that a large number have recovered faster than London. Data from 8 September showed that retail and recreation is up 10 per cent in Berlin but down 31 per cent in London, from their respective averages at the beginning of the year. Although public transport is down 17 per cent in Paris, it is down an even lower 46 per cent in London, from the same averages, according to Google Mobility data.

On the leaked poll’s second round of voting, however, where the lowest supported London mayoral candidate is eliminated, Mr Khan’s support jumped to 55 per cent, while Mr Bailey’s only increased to 45 per cent. Add this to another poll last month, conducted by Redfield and Wilton putting Bailey on just 27 per cent and it shows that he still has a mountain to climb.

But hundreds of thousands of people who live and work in London now see their livelihoods within one of the hardest-hit capital cities in Europe. Hundreds of thousands of jobs are on the line – so it might not be surprising if Khan is starting to pay a political price.