Ross Clark

The only tax-cutting Tory in town

Ross Clark says that we mustn’t underestimate Boris’s greatest achievement: to have frozen the GLA precept without affecting services is a triumph

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Ross Clark says that we mustn’t underestimate Boris’s greatest achievement: to have frozen the GLA precept without affecting services is a triumph

It is hard to remember the horrors of the London inherited by new Mayor Boris Johnson a year ago. It was a city gridlocked with traffic, with unaffordable housing, and where you couldn’t get a table in a decent restaurant without booking six months in advance. Now, the roads run freely, property is much cheaper and a seat for this evening at London’s finest restaurants is only a phone call away.

Admittedly, these improvements are less the work of the Mayor than a consolation for the deepest recession in living memory. What a time it was to take control of the world’s unofficial financial capital! Not even Boris’s eternal optimism could have saved London’s econ-omy — was I the only one who wanted to chuck something at him when he stood up at the Tory party conference and championed the ‘masters of the universe’ in the same week millions were fretting over their savings thanks to the failures of those self-styled masters?

That gaffe aside, Boris’s first year has been remarkably free of embarrassment. True, he made an arse of himself by denying, live on the Today programme, the existence of the memorandum of understanding signed between Ken and the government over the funding of the Olympics. Then there was the bus fiasco on the day it snowed in February — one might have expected Boris to deal better with the jobsworths at the bus depots. But where else for the likes of Polly Toynbee to search for material to damn the great Tory trial run?

Against all the odds, Boris has succeeded in making the mayoral office look dull. There has been no big disaster, but no big idea either. A year into his mayoralty, Ken Livingstone was already working on the congestion charge. He had dumped two decades of planning doctrine by promoting the case for high-rise buildings and was winning his battle to keep the new national stadium at Wembley. Like or loathe Ken, you couldn’t question his energy.

Boris’s initiatives, unlike the man himself, have rarely made a big noise. He has stuck to his word and launched a competition for a new Routemaster-style bus. But you don’t get headlines through worthy initiatives like offering empty office space free to overseas companies thinking of relocating to London, by giving jobseekers half-price on the buses, nor by negotiating with florists and sandwich bars at tube stations so that they can pay their rent monthly rather than quarterly in advance.

There has been the odd unworthy proposal, too, such as that to rephase traffic lights against pedestrians, provoking images of grannies having to run across the road before the lights go green for revving 4x4s. A spokesman was quick to play down the effect on pedestrians, and he had better be right: civilising London’s streets is one of Ken’s best achievements.

One might have expected Boris by now to have caused offence by slashing funding for one of Ken’s black lesbian Eskimo dance troupes. Yet, on this kind of stuff, Boris has gone native. When editor of this magazine he horrified his wife by threatening to write ‘pterodactyl’ on a form one of his children had brought home from school demanding details of ethnic identity. Yet now he is to be found pushing his latest initiative, ‘Diversity Works’, a seminar advising businesses ‘how to do diversity in a recession’. Such bureaucratic nonsense would turn the stomach of many of Boris’s colleagues among the right-wing commentariat, but his ability to absorb what is politically necessary in London, with cheerful enthusiasm, is perhaps why he is in power and the rest of us are not.

It isn’t just diversity. Read through the Boris-era Spectator and you will find editorials pooh-poohing climate change, even contrarily predicting a new ice age. Yet now Boris is to be found publishing a climate change plan and telling house-builders that they must in future incorporate into their developments charging points for electric cars.

And who, reading Boris’s output during his libertarian days, would imagine that one of his first acts would be to ban drinking on the tube? One can almost imagine the column he would have produced had Ken come up with the ban: what’s happened to an Englishman’s right to get plastered on the Bakerloo? I think he’s right: libertarianism makes a fun column, but the tube is a better place without people swigging lager.

There has been no going native, though, about Boris’s greatest achievement. It might not sound much of a boast: to have frozen the Greater London Authority precept. Given that the GLA precept is buried in council tax bills issued by the boroughs, it is quite possible that millions of Londoners have not even noticed what, in real terms, is a tax cut.

But in a recession, when income from the congestion charge has fallen sharply and energy costs are high, freezing the GLA precept is a remarkable achievement which deserves to be better acknowledged.

Unlike Brown and Darling’s teasingly temporary tax cuts, funded by borrowing which will burden taxpayers for a decade or more to come, there is no smoke and mirrors about Boris’s tax freeze. It really has been funded by spending cuts. And remarkably, they are cuts which have elicited virtually no audible response. There is no one moaning that kiddies are going without their morning milk or any of the other tear-jerking images Labour usually tries to portray when the Tories cut taxes.

To help me read the Mayor’s budget for next year I turned to the independent eyes of Tony Travers of the London School of Economics. Boris’s task, he says, has been made all the more difficult because he is not receiving the billions in additional transport grants which the government made available to Ken. Nevertheless, Boris has managed to effect a real-terms reduction in Transport for London’s spending, mostly by trimming capital spending on tube projects. Not services, line improvements or new rolling stock, note, but station refurbishments and preparatory work for a few of Ken’s projects which were never, in any case, going to find enough funding to go ahead. Astonishing sums have also been saved in administration costs: £207 million on the tube and £93 million in the Metropolitan police, for example.

Boris might have saved a lot more on the tube, says Travers, had he not been tied into an overpriced 30-year public-private partnership (PPP) contract negotiated by Gordon Brown as chancellor — and which Ken Livingstone, to his credit, opposed bitterly. ‘It is such a big contract that it is unworkable,’ says Travers. ‘It was supposed to transfer risk to the private sector, but when Metronet collapsed in 2004 the whole thing fell back on to the public sector. Risk hadn’t been transferred at all.’

As Andrew Gimson notes (on page 7 of this supplement), David Cameron and George Osborne still have trouble taking Boris seriously, and Osborne, for reasons of personal ambition, would love to see Boris come a cropper. Well they might be peeved: Boris’s success at cost-control in London contrasts starkly with their own pussyfooting over tax. It is only recently that Cameron has decided that promising to match the spending plans of the most disastrously profligate government in history is not a clever strategy.

Far from fearing the political consequences of making cuts, Boris’s experience rather suggests that waste has reached a level at which hardly anyone notices when it is trimmed.

‘Could Boris go on cutting taxes without affecting frontline services if the recession goes on another year? Probably not,’ thinks Travers. Even so, Boris has charted a course that shows our ruling party for what it is: committed shamelessly to bribing us with our own mone y. I only hope that Cameron, should he reach Downing Street, will swallow his pride over the man he still occasionally refers to as a ‘buffoon’, and learn a bit from him.