Crossrail: Dave looks Boris in the eye

Will a new government keep Crossrail, I asked Boris Johnson last week. “David Cameron looked me in the eye,” replied Boris, “and said ‘We’re going to do it.’”

Admittedly, that commitment was given at the Tory conference in October, before the new team had a chance to examine the (horrible) government ledgers. The fact that we still cannot be wholly certain about the £16 billion tunnel was shown by this week’s letter from business leaders, pleading with the government to make its future secure.

Something else Boris said to me suggests one possible route our new masters may take. “You cannot extend the [construction] timescale to save money,” he said. “It’s a false economy.”

He also interestingly refused to deny speculation that the project could be descoped, with the Abbey Wood branch lopped off. Is that really possible? It would mean that Crossrail would not serve Canary Wharf, surely a bit of a no-no. Canary Wharf is also where most work has been done so far, with construction of the new station under way.

Likelier, perhaps, is the trimming of costs. £16 billion is a gigantic amount to spend on a few miles of rail tunnel – not much less, in real terms, than the 26-mile Channel Tunnel cost. TfL is notorious for its profligacy. People at Canary Wharf, who are part-funding their station, and building the whole thing under a fixed-cost contact, tell me that they were able to make substantial savings on the budget  TfL proposed for it.

It is, of course, almost unknown for British transport projects to come in below budget. But if that can be achieved, Crossrail’s future would seem to be more secure.


Islamists are crushed in Tower Hamlets

Lutfur Rahman, the Labour leader of Tower Hamlets council backed by radical Islamists, has lost his job. At last night’s Labour group meeting, he was replaced as leader by another Labour councillor, Helal Abbas. Abbas is the man who protested last year that Tower Hamlets council was controlled by the fundamentalist Islamic Forum of Europe (IFE), based at the hardline East London Mosque.

Mr Rahman is the latest casualty of the Telegraph/ Channel 4 Dispatches investigation earlier this year into the IFE’s grip on east London politics. One of the Labour MPs for the area, Jim Fitzpatrick, told us that the IFE had infiltrated his party like Militant in the 1980s. On camera, Mr Rahman squirmingly refused to deny that the IFE had helped secure his election as leader. Many other Labour councillors told us that he and his administration were heavily influenced by the IFE.

The IFE, which believes in transforming Western democratic government into Islamic government, campaigned heavily against Mr Fitzpatrick – but he comfortably secured re-election. Most of the Islamist-influenced figures we identified in the film have since suffered a rapid deterioration in their careers.

As well as Mr Rahman, Lutfur Ali, the IFE-linked assistant chief executive of the council, lost his job as a result of the programme. The Respect party’s Abjol Miah, an activist in the IFE, came third with 16 per cent of the vote in the Bethnal Green and Bow constituency – and is no longer a councillor. Respect, which won 12 seats at the  2006 council elections, is now down to just one seat. Respect’s George Galloway, who boasted that he “owed more than I can say” to the IFE, was humiliated, also coming third in Poplar and Limehouse and failing even to turn up to the count.

The fight is not over. Later this year, Tower Hamlets will hold its first election for a directly-elected mayor. The IFE described in undercover footage taken by Channel 4 how it was organising to “get one of our people in” to the job. It will now be pouring all its resources into the effort to secure victory for its candidate. But given the way it has been pushed back this week, the auguries look hopeful.

The Tories should pray for a Lib-Lab coalition

A Lib-Lab coalition would be democratically preposterous, defying the laws of political gravity. But for that very reason it could, in the medium term, be the best possible outcome for the Tories.  It would be losers propping up losers. It would be hugely difficult to keep together, lacking a majority of its own and requiring life-support from various nationalist parties. It would be vulnerable to all sorts of unsavoury Celtic blackmail, enraging the already long-suffering English (whose own voting intentions were very clear.)

It would lead to a second unelected prime minister. It might well trigger serious trouble in the financial markets. It would have to make drastic cuts with no mandate whatever. Electoral reform (which I support) would be discredited, because it would be seen as a cynical gerrymander to keep losers in power. Labour would probably be unable to deliver it, even if they wanted to (and it’s far from certain that they do.)  

For all these reasons, a red-yellow alliance would be a political disaster for all those involved. When the inevitable collapse, and new election, came, probably within months, both Labour and the Lib Dems would be annihilated. 

The much more sensible thing for Labour to do would be to go into opposition, let the Tories and Lib Dems suffer the pain of having to make cuts, and hope to profit in a future election, which might also come rather more quickly than usual.

The next year or two would have been horrible enough for whoever was in charge, even if they’d had a clear majority. Without one, it will be simply a world of pain. I still think it’s hugely unlikely we’ll end up with red-yellow rule – I should imagine the current Lib/Lab negotiations are just Clegg’s way of getting more from the Tories. But if it does somehow happen, the Tories will have dodged a bullet – and been handed an Exocet for later on.

It is not in Labour's own interest to stay in government

I’m enjoying seeing the Left build castles in the air this morning, as they desperately try to think up some sort of deal that could keep them in power. You should never say never in politics, so I’m not going to. But here are my eight reasons why it’s very unlikely.

1. Labour hasn’t got the numbers. Even with the Lib Dems, they are still 8 short of an effective majority (given that Sinn Fein’s 5 MPs will not take their seats.) Cobbling together some sort of understanding with the Greens and the Nationalists would look desperate, last about five minutes, and make the government vulnerable to every piece of petty SNP or Plaid Cymru blackmail.

2. Labour hasn’t got the votes. They got 29 per cent of the popular vote, only 0.7 per cent more than Michael Foot managed in 1983, and less than John Major in the 1997 Tory wipeout. Even before this election, Gordon Brown lacked legitimacy. His authority now would be virtually nil.

3. Labour has lost the election. They went backwards. The Lib Dems went backwards. It is very hard to defend a loser being propped up by another loser.

4. It would discredit electoral reform. You can’t make a fundamental change to the political system as part of some cobbled-together deal to keep yourself in power and lock out the others. Labour’s eleventh-hour conversion to the noble cause of PR, after 13 years opposing it, is largely opportunistic and would look like the crudest form of gerrymandering.

5. There’s an economic crisis. Trying to stitch together unlikely coalitions and fretting about PR, a second-order issue for most voters, would look like navel-gazing to the public at a time when the greatest need is for the most stable possible government.

6. Clegg can’t go back on his refusal to deal with Gordon. Labour would have to get another leader. Even if that could be arranged in less than a few months, it would look too contrived. Could the country tolerate a second unelected prime minister in a row, a prime minister who has played no part in the TV debates?

7. The longer Labour refuse to recognise reality now, the harder it will be for them in the future. Labour is nothing like as finished as many people thought they’d be. They have a basis on which to rebuild. But if it looks like they’re clinging on, that could cost them far more than they’ve already lost. And, most importantly for Labour…

8. It simply isn’t in Labour’s interest to be in government now. The next year or so will be a world of pain for whoever’s in charge. Hugely unpopular decisions will have to be made by a government without much of a mandate. This is a good time for Labour to sit it out, elect a better leader, hope the Tories won’t last long, then capitalise on their unpopularity at the ensuing election.

London elections: all (except the extremists) shall have prizes

The people of London voted in a very sophisticated, very discriminating and rather brilliant way yesterday. Among the highlights:

The complete wipeout of the BNP on Barking council, and the party going significantly backwards in the race for the parliamentary seat.

The slapdown delivered to the forces of radical Islamism in Tower Hamlets, with Jim Fitzpatrick, one of very few mainstream politicians brave enough to speak out against the Islamic Forum of Europe, winning Poplar and Limehouse for Labour. Both of Fitzpatrick’s main opponents, Respect’s George Galloway and the Tories’ Tim Archer, have links with the fundamentalist IFE or its HQ, the East London Mosque. Respect was driven into third place in both Poplar and next-door Bethnal Green and Bow. Respect has also been losing councillors in Tower Hamlets this evening, though the proposal for an elected mayor – a key IFE target – seems likely to be passed.

The triumph in Richmond Park of the Tories’ Zac Goldsmith, a really interesting and maverick candidate who will make a great MP.

The personal votes which kept Glenda Jackson, Karen Buck, Emily Thornberry and Lynne Featherstone, four independent-minded Labour and Lib Dem MPs, in place against the general performance of their parties – though I felt sorry for Joanne Cash, Buck’s excellent Tory opponent, and hope she tries again.

The failure of Hammersmith and Fulham’s shocker council propaganda newspaper, H&F News, to deliver Hammersmith to the Tories.

Labour did better in London than in the rest of the country. This was partly thanks to the significant underperformance of the Lib Dems (yet another Guardian endorsement which has proved the kiss of death). For the yellow army, failing to take Islington South (Labour majority: less than 500; Guardianista count: overwhelming) and losing Richmond Park must have been huge blows.

Yet it was also due to a patchy performance by the Tories. They did pretty well in middle-class parts of west and north-west London – taking Hendon, Harrow East, Finchley, Brentford & Isleworth, Ealing Central and Acton, and Richmond Park on swings of up to 7 per cent, and recording an even higher swing in Hampstead & Kilburn which was fractionally not enough to win. They got a swing of nearly 10 per cent in a seat they already hold, Putney.

But with only one or two exceptions (Croydon Central) they did not do well enough in those white lower-middle and working-class parts of outer London which swung so heavily to Boris Johnson in 2008. After Cash’s Westminster North, the cruellest result of the night may have been Eltham, which had been thought of as a near-certain Tory gain but where Mr Cameron managed a swing of just 1.8 per cent. In Mitcham and Morden,  the swing was less than 1 per cent.

These huge variations make it quite hard to generalise – though that didn’t, of course, stop some of the stupider partisans trying to spin it as a triumph for Labour. The following generalisations, however, do seem safe. First, candidates clearly mattered in this election. And unlike Boris in 2008, Cameron has not broken through to the working class, in the capital at least.

Will attack on Tory Right-wing horrors work any better today than it did in London two years ago?

After Boris Johnson was elected as Mayor of London, you may remember his opponents promising to use his rule as a foretaste of the Thatcherite horrors that awaited under a David Cameron government. Whatever happened to that, I wonder?

In this election, Boris’s mayoralty simply hasn’t turned into the great weapon that his opponents hoped. That, no doubt, is why they have barely mentioned it in the campaign. A cuttings search finds a few attacks on Boris’s cuts to police numbers in the Standard and the local London press, but that really is just about all. It must be tremendously disappointing for the likes of the Guardian’s Dave Hill, who has been diligently campaigning for his chosen party (though one of Boris’s staff once said to me that being on the receiving end of Dave’s attack journalism felt like being gently nibbled by a very small goldfish).

There were plenty of real charges to make against Boris – his previous lack of interest in London, his managerial inattention, his lack of any formed idea of what he wanted to do with the job. I think some of those still apply. But it lacked credibility for Labour to claim, as they did, that he was “Norman Tebbit in a clown’s uniform” or “George W Boris.” He palpably is not, and his record at City Hall shows it. Ken Livingstone gracefully conceded this, too, when we met on TV the other day.

We will know soon enough whether the very similar attack against Cameron now being mounted by Labour has any more traction with voters than when the line was tried against Boris.