The Trouble with Sadiq Khan

By Gilligan, Andrew | The Spectator, November 26, 2016 | Go to article overview

The Trouble with Sadiq Khan


Gilligan, Andrew, The Spectator


London's mayor rides high in the polls, but City Hall is less impressed

Let's try a thought experiment, shall we? If a senior adviser to my old boss, Boris Johnson, had celebrated John Smith's heart attack, mocked Gordon Brown for talking about his dead son and referred to senior members of the Labour party as 'scum', how long do you think that person would have kept their job? Thankfully, however, this particular mini-Trump, the former reality TV star Amy Lamé, was appointed (as London's 'night czar') by a Labour mayor, and her -targets were all Tories, so it's fine. As, apparently, are Lamé's years of virtue-signalling on social media for higher spending and taxes while arranging to receive her own City Hall salary through a personal company so she can pay as little tax as possible.

The London Assembly is now investigating how the czar with something of the night about her came to be appointed (Lamé is a major fundraiser for Labour, but there can't possibly be any connection). She won't sink Sadiq Khan, but this shallow, ill-vetted hire exemplifies some weaknesses which could come to dog his so-far -successful mayoralty.

On 1 May, four days before the election, Zac Goldsmith, Khan's Tory opponent, predicted 'catastrophe' if his rival won. As with similar doom-mongering over Brexit, it simply hasn't happened. Boris's first six months were strewn with the corpses of discarded deputy mayors. Khan's have been smooth and politically adept. He has started to outline a vision for the left distinct from Jeremy Corbyn's blind alley, created a clear alternative pole of power in the party and given Labour people hope that all is not doomed. In the post-referendum chaos, he looked like the only grown-up in the room.

Andrew Gilligan and Richard Watts debate Sadiq Khan's work so far

He has been a rebuke to bigots, both non-Muslim and Muslim, who say that Islamic and western values cannot coexist, a role model for black and ethnic-minority people who feel excluded, a symbol of London's openness. His election symbolised the capital's no-fuss approach to these issues; for most voters his race and his faith were no big deal. Attempts to brand him a sinister extremist backfired, bestowing significant public goodwill.

Yet Khan's stellar opinion poll ratings may tell us as little about his future as the soaring stock market tells us about the country's. Below the surface, you can see some warning outlines of potential failure. In his first newspaper interview as mayor, Khan praised the work of Tony Blair. And his early months do feel a lot like New Labour's, when the Blair government was being extravagantly praised for things that later came back to bite them.

His PR and positioning is great. But just as Blair was, in the end, damaged by the constant quest for favourable headlines, so might the mayor be. Last week was a busy one for the Sadiq Khan news agency. He sent Volkswagen, many of whose cars were fitted with cheat devices to cut their emissions, a £2.5 million bill for the congestion charges he said they should have paid. 'If you don't ask you don't get. I'm a champion for clean air, I'm a champion for London,' Khan said.

This won media attention, which was the exercise's sole objective, but its chances of achieving anything for air quality or City Hall's bank balance are, of course, nil. Meanwhile, the champion for clean air was quietly cancelling a scheme to reallocate roadspace to cycling, which might have done something real for London's chronic pollution problem. …

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