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PM on the ropes as London Tories rail against extension of congestion charge

Michael Savage Policy editor
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Alastair Grant/AP</span>
Photograph: Alastair Grant/AP

Boris Johnson is facing mounting pressure from Tory MPs in London to comprehensively rule out a massive extension of the congestion charge in the capital, amid emergency talks over a new bailout for its struggling transport system.

Conservative figures warned there would be “blood on the walls” if the government allowed the extension of the charge, which would hit a series of so-called “London doughnut” Tory seats on the outskirts of the city. They are also demanding there must be no threat to subsidised travel for the young or older people, also proposed as an option by the government as a condition of a further bailout.

The idea of extending the congestion charge was among a series of measures suggested in a leaked letter from the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, earlier this month.

It would apparently see the £15 charge extend to the North and South Circular roads by October 2021 – an 18-fold increase in the size of the area covered. London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, is demanding £4.9bn for the next 18 months to rescue Transport for London (TfL), which has been severely hit by the Covid-19 crisis.

However, even raising the idea has outraged Tory MPs. London Tories have held two emergency meetings with Shapps in the last fortnight, warning him an extension of the charge will “not be tolerated”. Shapps has attempted to calm concerns but Tories remain uneasy after Johnson failed to rule out a congestion charge extension when confronted with the issue at prime minister’s questions on Wednesday.

“Extending the congestion charge, taking away concessionary fares to the elderly and young, are completely unacceptable to us – we were not going to accept it,” said one figure involved. “If this was even suggested then there’d be real complaints and blood on the walls.”

There is deep frustration among Tories in the capital, who believe the government has allowed itself to be outflanked by Khan. They warn that ministers have allowed him to blame them for imposing cuts without having to draw any up himself.

Another Conservative MP said: “Khan has now been allowed to basically hide problems of his own making behind Covid. We’re letting him get away with blaming everything on the government. There’s a real frustration that [Johnson] hasn’t been as adept as he might have been with how to deal with this man.”

The latest row comes as Khan and Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham accuse the government of treating local leaders “as the enemy” during the pandemic. Writing jointly in the Observer, they state that “rather than partnership we have both been subjected to party politics, personal attacks and deliberate disinformation from ministers”. Ministers want us to bite our tongues and bend the knee. When we don’t, they threaten to withhold support for the low-paid in Greater Manchester or remove free travel for kids in London.” They are now calling for a meeting with the prime minister to improve relations.

The dispute is the latest to highlight the growing question of No 10’s influence over London and claims that Khan’s powers have been diminished across the board. There is now just a week to go until the deadline by which the government must agree a financial support package for TfL. Khan’s team has made clear it cannot accept a deal that would force through higher fares, higher council tax, a hugely increased congestion charge zone and concessions for children and over-60s being scrapped in return for the financial support.

Khan’s team has warned the government of the potentially “catastrophic” effect of forcing TfL into issuing a “section 114” notice if it cannot balance its books. In theory, that could see the winding down of all services apart from the Woolwich ferry and some school bus services – the only services TfL is legally obliged to provide. On Friday, Khan wrote to Shapps demanding a meeting to sort out the deal.

A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “We have agreed an extension to the support period and to roll over unspent funding from the TfL extraordinary funding agreement, allowing further time for negotiations for a new settlement. These discussions will ensure London has a safe, reliable network. It would be inappropriate to disclose further details at this stage.”