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.
Then there was the announcement of a ‘freeze in Transport for London fares’, again taken largely at face value by the media. In his manifesto, Khan promised ‘Londoners won’t pay a penny more for their travel in 2020 than they do today.’ When the new fares start in five weeks, Londoners who need, for instance, an annual all-zones travelcard will find they are actually paying 4,400 more pennies (£44). Officially, it’s because travelcards and Oyster price caps cover some rail routes where the mayor has no control over fares. But it will affect -millions who use only TfL services, too.
Sadiq also this week tried to crowbar himself and Ms Lamé into the deal to reopen London’s Fabric nightclub. Oddly enough, the statement released by the club and the local council didn’t mention either of them.
Just as Blair imposed strong central control and message discipline, so Khan’s style is controlling, with key decisions made in a small circle of long-standing campaign aides. People who know about -governing rather than campaigning — such as the deputy mayors for transport and planning, Val Shawcross and Jules Pipe — are outside the inner loop (Pipe does not even have a desk in the mayor’s office; Shawcross mainly works from a completely different building).
Behind the scenes several allies, including many Labour members of the London Assembly, have already been alienated. Sadiq barely talks to most of them and has not been to a Labour group meeting since July — when, according to those present, he largely sat with arms folded in a corner and when spoken to said: ‘I don’t think I should comment; you wouldn’t like what I have to say.’
And just as Blair was diverted from the grind of delivery by the glamour of foreign affairs, so too could Khan’s status as post-Brexit standard-bearer or potential next leader of the Labour party distract him from the day job. Brexit will, of course, affect London significantly, but the mayor has only limited ability to affect it.
In many areas where he does have the power to make change, by contrast, officials are still waiting for decisions. Just as Blair practised ‘triangulation’, positioning himself between and above opposing political viewpoints, so Khan appears to be moving towards third-way positions on -contested issues in an effort to be all things to all -people. But trying to keep everyone happy risks leaving no one happy. As Blair himself came to believe, it is often better politically to make a clear choice.
Like most mayors, Sadiq hasn’t really had the attention or scrutiny the post deserves. That is one reason why Policy Exchange, the centre-right thinktank, has created something called the Capital City Foundation, which I am heading. We will praise Khan where he deserves it. If he keeps his promises on air quality, pedestrianisation, cycling and housing, he will be a radical, reforming mayor.
But we will also look behind the press releases and fill in the gaps. In a few weeks, we will be publishing a detailed assessment of Khan’s achievements, failures and promises to date. Among outsiders, it is still hard to find anyone with a bad word to say about Sadiq. But City Hall insiders, of all political persuasions, are a little less sure.