Margaret Thatcher most likely never said that ‘anyone on a bus over the age of 25 is a failure’, but it’s handy for her supporters and detractors to pretend that she did. It encapsulates a certain view of the Iron Lady: that the individualism of cars was for the go-getters, a reliance on public transport for the life’s losers. Now, nearly three decades after she didn’t utter those words, it is becoming the de facto view of many Tories.
The Conservatives find little they agree on and often little to shout about, but the party has increasingly found its voice as the party of motorists. At both parliamentary and local level, Conservative politicians have become ardently pro-car at the expense of almost every other form of transport. Despite there being some logic in appealing to their voters, though, it has brought them into clashes with their own government and delivered uncertain electoral results.
This instinct is most striking among London MPs. The politics of the capital lend itself to a clash around transport. London Tories tend to represent richer seats on the periphery of London. Their voters use their cars more and public transport less, outside of the urban density of the inner city. Moreover, as most of the capital’s transport remains in the hands of the Labour mayor, they are keen to exploit disharmony. It’s the same instinct that sees them support more houses in principle, yet resolutely block every development on their patch – especially those where the mayor’s office has a big say.
Opposition to the Ultra Low Emissions Zone is the most obvious of these. Under the scheme, drivers of older, more polluting vehicles have to pay a charge of £12.50 to enter inner London. From next year, Sadiq Khan proposes to extend this to outer London boroughs, bringing far more drivers into the ambit of the charge.