Boris Johnson looked very uncomfortable at yesterday’s Mayor’s Questions Time as both Labour and Tory Assembly Members challenged him to fulfil his “moral duty” to the former staff of Visit London Limited and rescue their pensions.
The creation of London & Partners – which merged all London promotional agencies into a single agency – followed the slashing of the Mayor’s development budget as part of Government spending cuts.
Although staff transferred to London & Partners, the new company has not taken on responsibility for their pensions.
In response the Mayor went to great lengths to say the issue would be reviewed and action taken once the Assembly’s investigation is complete.
The disapproval of Tory AMs was clear by their silence in the Chamber – normally Boris’s party colleagues spare no effort to drown out criticisms of their man, but on this issue there was no friendly crowd to hide behind.
The timing of the questions couldn’t have been more embarrassing – yesterday the Mayor’s team wanted the message to be the creation of 2,000 apprenticeships and jobs across the Greater London Authority Group and its contractors.
The spectacle of staff having their pension whisked away somewhat undermines that story.
There’s also the threat that Labour will be able to make stick the claim that Visit London collapsed because Boris’s promised “Stalingrad-like” defence of the capital’s funding failed.
What seemed to save Boris from an even rougher time over the issue was the revelation that he’d been advised by Sir Simon Milton who passed away last month.
The mention of Sir Simon seemed to take some of the energy out of the attack – I suspect Labour AMs were unwilling to look like they were criticising someone they’d started the meeting standing in tribute to.
The twin difficulties for Boris are that such squeamishness won’t last and resolving the pensions issue alone may not be enough to end the row.
Labour’s Len Duvall claims a number of small London businesses are owed money by Visit London. If one of them were to go under as a result of a bad debt the story would gain fresh impetus.
Plus, who would choose to work for any future GLA backed company if there’s a risk their pension could vanish at the stroke of a Mayoral pen?
I’ve spoken to two Tory Assembly Members in the past 24 hours who both suggested Boris will eventually have to buy Visit London back from the administrators.
I’m hoping to hear back from the administrators on the feasibility of such a deal.
Whatever the final outcome, Boris is going to have to persuade Londoners that he didn’t callously decide to take people’s pensions away.
His best chance of doing that seems to rest with adopting the same ‘cock-up, not conspiracy’ defence Tory Assembly Members are putting forward on his behalf.
With the Mayoral elections now less than a year away that’s going to be a very unwelcome prospect.