They say politics can be a rough old game and nowhere is perhaps that more true than in the debate over air pollution in London. For the Mayor, air pollution is a sensitive issue. He recently hinted that he regretted not having got to grips with the issue when he first became Mayor. Addressing MPs at Parliament's Environmental Audit Committee he said his advice to the next Mayor was "take the tough decisions early, take the heat, and it will all pay off."
It is perhaps this sense of guilt, of opportunities missed, which has led to such a strong reaction from the Mayor's Environment advisor to reports that Oxford Street has the world's highest level of nitrogen dioxide pollution. The statement was not some throwaway remark. It was made by one of the country's leading experts, Dr David Carslaw at the renowned King's College Environmental Research Group at a conference in June. The Mayor's reaction was rapid and unequivocal. "B*llocks" the Mayor tweeted in disgust.
What we didn't know was what was going on behind the scenes in the Mayor's name. Last week it was confirmed that the Mayor's Environment Advisor quickly wrote to Dr Carslaw's bosses at King's, stating that "I look forward to continuing to work with King's ERG and trust that in future more rigour will be applied to public statements made by members of the Group's staff." This was a reminder to the senior management at King's that the funding they receive for air quality research, controlled by the Mayor, could be withdrawn. This was, according to scientists at King's, a veiled threat.
This latest episode in the air pollution debate signifies how politically toxic accusations against the Mayor's air pollution policies have become. Clearly, if you dare to question the Mayor's commitment to the issue you might find yourself on the receiving end of an angry letter and veiled threats. I was very pleased however to read that this will not change Kings' stance on the issue. A source close to King's told the Times, "The threat was very clear, but it cannot alter the facts".
Today the Mayor is launching his consultation on a new Ultra Low Emission Zone. A scheme that will not be rolled out until 2020 amid the total failure of the Mayor to retro-fit London's polluting bus fleet. By 2020 Boris Johnson must hope he will never face questions on air pollution again. With European fines and further legal action just around the corner the Mayor may regret not "taking the heat" as he put it, for some time yet.
Murad Qureshi AM, London Assembly Labour Group Environment Spokesperson