U.S. Envoy Won't Pay London's Daily Car Toll
MICHELE NORRIS: The Mayor of London is in trouble again. The controversial Ken Livingstone has compared the U.S. Ambassador to Britain, Robert Tuttle, to a crook. The reason for this outburst? The refusal of the American Embassy in London to pay the so- called congestion charge, that's the fee that all drivers entering Central London must pay.
NPR's Rob Gifford reports.
ROB GIFFORD: Everyone in London knows Ken Livingstone likes what they call around here a little bit of argy bargy, the rough and tumble and shoot from the hip banter with politicians and journalists alike that livens up an otherwise very well greased political spin machine. Many say that's why he's been elected twice, because he's not quite on message. Known for years as Red Ken, for his role in the so-called Looney Left Wing Labor Party politics of the 1970's and 80's. On Monday night Livingstone hit the headlines by suggesting that the American Ambassador of the Court of St. James, businessman and Republican fundraiser, Robert Tuttle, should pay the $14 congestion charge like everybody else, and not "scive out of it like some chiseling little crook." Livingstone has been arguing with the U.S. Embassy since last year about this issue. The number two diplomat under Mr. Tuttle of the U.S. Embassy, David Johnson, was today, well, fairly diplomatic.
DAVID JOHNSON: The way we've approached this is not to dignify that kind of insult by responding to it. We don't want to encourage bad behavior, if you will, by responding to it.
GIFFORD: Johnson says the charge is a tax and that diplomats are immune from domestic taxes in their postings under the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations. Livingstone says the charge, which is one of his flagship policies, is a road toll, which diplomats have to pay. The debate is complicated by the fact that more than 50 embassies in London, from Algeria through Germany to Zimbabwe do pay the charge. Livingstone's office would today not comment on the issue. His opponents, however, were only too happy to.
Angie Bray is Deputy Leader of the Conservative Party Group in the London Assembly.
ANGIE BRAY: I think a lot of us are very depressed and disappointed at this latest outburst from our Mayor of London. The whole tone of his remarks is so damaging to the reputation of what is one of the world's greatest cities, and we think that Londoners must be just getting sick to death of the man who has been elected to represent them, being such an embarrassment frankly, that's what he is, an embarrassment.
GIFFORD: Livingstone's pugnacious streak, and especially his anti-Americanism, has been quite popular, especially on issues such as the war in Iraq, which he and many Britons fiercely oppose. In his comments on Monday he actually said when British troops are putting their lives on the line for American foreign policy, it would be quite nice if they, the American diplomats, paid the congestion charge.
But Livingstone was recently suspended from his job for four weeks after he compared a Jewish reporter on a London newspaper to a concentration camp guard and a German war criminal. The suspension has been postponed pending an appeal. Since then he's angered Jewish groups again saying two billionaire property developers involved in the redevelopment around London's 2012 Olympic site, should "Go back to Iran and try their luck with the Ayatollahs." Although the two in question are Indian born Iraqi Jews.
The consensus, in a completely unscientific poll of some London commuters tonight, including Keith Manship(ph) and Frankie Morris(ph), suggested that Red Ken had probably overstepped the mark this time.
KEITH MANSHIP: It's not a very nice thing to say, but I do believe the Ambassador should pay his congestion.
FRANKIE MORRIS: Mr. Livingstone is far too outspoken for his own good really, and should not be saying that publicly, but that's his nature.
GIFFORD: Rob Gifford NPR News London.