During a period when bad news was the flavour of the month for ‘technology company’ Uber, as PHTM was on press deadline for this edition a Daily Mail investigation dramatically unfolded, querying the impropriety of ex-Prime Minister David Cameron and his Chancellor George Osborne when they lobbied the then Mayor of London Boris Johnson to “back off” from his programme of private hire reform in the capital – which would have curbed the business direction of Uber.
PHTM readers may recall that in late 2015 Boris Johnson launched a Private Hire Regulations Review, which underwent extensive consultation. The review contained several controversial proposals, amongst which were the limiting of the numbers of private hire vehicles in London; a five-minute delay between accepting a private hire booking and picking up the customer; and the requirement that all private hire drivers pass a written English test.
[The latter requirement is one of only a few of these proposals that has been instigated; significantly last month, on Wednesday 22 March – the day of the horrific terrorist atrocities in London – a contingent of the private hire trade obtained agreement from the current Mayor, Sadiq Khan, to meet with them to discuss the parameters of such testing.]
In any event, the Daily Mail investigation has uncovered the fact that both David Cameron and George Osborne sent “forthright texts” to Boris Johnson immediately he launched his proposed reform review. At the same time the Downing Street officials in office “bombarded” Johnson and his aides with “stern emails and shouty phone calls” – all with the same message: that the Mayor drop each and every policy that might threaten the finances of Uber.
By January 2016 Johnson had done a remarkable U-turn with the private hire review. Many thought it was because of a petition sent in by Uber on its own; however, the investigation reveals other ideas. Freedom of Information requests were put in to both Downing Street and Transport for London; it emerged that Downing Street had failed to divulge details of the alleged lobbying operation when asked to do so - their response was that “there were no records of any exchanges”. This later proved untrue when TfL officials released details of the correspondence.
Calls have been made for an inquiry over both the alleged cover-up and the Government’s links to the ‘technology company’. Opposition politicians pointed out that Rachel Whetstone, a senior vice-president at Uber, is a personal friend of both Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne.
“This blatant cover-up by [then] 10 Downing Street must now lead to a formal inquiry,” said Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem chairman of the Greater London Assembly’s Transport Committee.
Labour MP Wes Streeting also called for Theresa May to launch a probe into the issue. “It is pretty clear that... Downing Street under David Cameron tried to cover up its cosy relationship with Uber,” he said. “Under David Cameron, Downing Street was clearly acting as the lobbying arm for Uber which is extraordinary.”
What made it even more extraordinary, as several sources have pointed out including Christopher Morris, a political aide working for Lib Dems in the London Assembly – who originally served Downing Street with the FOI request – is the serious involvement of the [then] Government with a transport matter which is totally devolved to the London Mayor and the GLA, and has nothing to do with Government or Parliament.