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When Sadiq Khan became London’s first Muslim mayor in May 2016, he promised “hope” and a “better future”. “London has today chosen hope over fear and unity over division,” he said in his early-hours victory speech at City Hall. That upbeat vision has been tested repeatedly over the past 16 months by a succession of unexpected shocking events.
First came the Brexit vote. When Khan was elected, the polls suggested that Britain would remain in the EU; seven weeks later came the Leave victory. London is a pro-EU city. Nearly a million EU citizens live there, double the figure in 2005. The capital voted to stay by 60 to 40 per cent. The mayor says the result left him “grief-stricken”. He told The New Yorker magazine in July: “It was like we were in mourning.”
The Leave vote has prompted a gear change in the mayor’s role, making it imperative to maintain London’s voice at the Brexit talks. He has secured a monthly appointment with David Davis, the Brexit secretary, met with other cabinet ministers and senior EU figures, and set up his own Brexit expert advisory panel.
One of the mayor’s priorities for post-Brexit London is to argue for an immigration system that will allow Europeans — and others — to continue to flock to the UK capital. Many Londoners take pride in their home’s reputation as a diverse, modern city where the colour of someone’s skin matters less than their abilities. This was underlined by Khan’s election — he describes himself as a mayor who happens to be Muslim. His rise also seemed to embody the idea of London as a place of social mobility: his father was a Pakistani bus driver and he grew up in a council flat in south London.
Then, starting in spring this year, a succession of incidents cast a pall over the city and tested its reputation for tolerance. On March 22, a jihadi brought up in the UK crashed a car into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge, resulting in four deaths, before running to the Palace of Westminster main entrance, where he stabbed a police officer to death before he was fatally shot himself. On June 3, three terrorists crashed a van into people near London Bridge before stabbing others in Borough Market, killing eight and injuring 48 before they too were shot dead. Two weeks later a van was driven into a group of Muslims near a mosque in Finsbury Park, causing one death and 11 injuries.
Khan then had to deal with the aftermath of the city’s worst fire since the Blitz. On June 14, flames ripped through Grenfell Tower, a 24-storey social housing block in west London, killing an estimated 80 people. Public fury was directed at politicians of all stripes, the mayor included. A day later, he visited the still-smouldering site to give a speech and was heckled by some locals. He sought to channel that anger by promising to hold both the local council and the national government to account. “I have experienced first-hand [the residents’] justified grief, anger and frustration. I share it,” he said.
Much of his time in the summer has been focused on dealing with the fallout from the attacks. One of his first acts on becoming mayor was to commission Lord (Toby) Harris to review London’s readiness for a major terrorist incident. More than a third of the review’s 127 recommendations have so far been implemented. The mayor is in regular contact with Cressida Dick, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, while City Hall has worked with other authorities to install barriers on bridges. He also launched a “London Is Open” campaign to reassure tourists.
Even opponents concede that he has risen to the occasion. “His response to the terror incidents has been proportional and sensible,” says one Tory member of the London Assembly. “He has been good at being an inclusive mayor, there’s no doubt about that.”
When Khan chose to run for the mayoralty he proved himself a masterful political operator. The former human rights lawyer and Tooting MP nudged aside Labour rival Tessa Jowell and defeated Zac Goldsmith, the Tory candidate. While Goldsmith ran a divisive campaign, warning that his Muslim rival posed “a real danger to London”, Khan sought to reach across divides.
He has sidestepped easy categorisation as “leftwing” or “rightwing”. At times he has been outspoken — for example, taking on the US president in a bizarre Twitter spat after Donald Trump criticised his attempts to reassure citizens after the terror attacks.
Khan says his priorities for his four-year term are to protect London’s competitiveness, tackle the housing crisis, boost business, make London safer, encourage social integration, improve the transport network and make the city greener.
The mayor, who developed asthma as an adult, says he wants better air quality to be one legacy. London already has a low-emission zone that applies only to commercial vehicles. He has begun a consultation on extending this at the end of the decade. This month he will bring in a new “T-charge” (toxicity charge) of £10 for polluting vehicles — typically more than 10 years old — entering the existing congestion charge zone in the city centre. There will be “clean bus lanes” and a new air quality alert system. Areeba Hamid, a campaigner with Greenpeace, the environmental organisation, says other European cities are pushing harder — Paris, for example, is banning diesel vehicles from 2025 — but adds that Khan is much more proactive than the previous regime.
One activist from the Liberal Democrat party says Khan’s first year in office has featured “no major screw-ups” but points out that neither are there any major physical projects under way. “That’s a contrast to Boris [Johnson, Khan’s predecessor], who was obsessed with legacy.”
A Conservative London Assembly member describes Khan as a “shape-shifter” who has enjoyed a positive media profile reminiscent of Tony Blair in his early years as Labour leader. The mayor’s ability to mix with union leaders, business executives and Tory ministers alike has irritated some of his political enemies. “He has used City Hall as a platform to attack the government at every opportunity,” says one. “Yet they fall over themselves to call him ‘Sadiq’ and tell people how much they like working with him.”
During the run-up to this June’s general election, Khan said that nearly 13,000 police officers could be lost under a Conservative government, a claim denied furiously by ministers. The Tories recently issued a report, The Cost of Khan, in an attempt to pin him down over his policy progress. They claimed that his promise to freeze fares, at the cost of up to £640m a year by 2020, had jeopardised certain public transport schemes, such as the extension of the Metropolitan Line to Watford Junction. Khan has hit back, saying that scheme is the responsibility of central government.
Meanwhile, the mayor says he is making “tough efficiency savings” at Transport for London, the operator of the city’s public transport system, to keep investing money in the network. He also withdrew funding for a planned Thames garden bridge, a scheme he inherited from Johnson and never fully endorsed.
Khan has exerted influence on the Tory government to win a green light — or at least an amber one — for Crossrail 2, a new north-south commuter rail line. Chris Grayling, the transport secretary, agreed in July to a consultation on the project.
In September he was accused by Theresa May of putting thousands of jobs at risk after Transport for London decided not to renew the license of Uber, the ride-hailing company. Khan said that although he endorsed the regulatory decision it had been taken independently by TfL on grounds of public safety.
The mayor insists that housing is his top priority. That sense of urgency has been hastened by the Grenfell fire, which highlighted the perceived neglect of council tenants. But Jasmine Whitbread, chief executive of London First, a business lobbying group, says the pipeline of newbuilds in London is at its worst level ever. “The issue has really gone up the agenda . . . there isn’t an employer who isn’t concerned about their ability to attract and retain staff, due to both Brexit uncertainty and the housing situation,” she says.
Khan responds that the “cupboard was bare” when he came to office. “The mayor has been clear that turning round the housing crisis won’t happen overnight,” a spokeswoman says. Meanwhile, a promise he made during his 2016 mayoral election campaign that at least “50 per cent of all new homes in London” would be affordable, has since been watered down to a real target of about 35 per cent. His office says the 50 per cent figure remains a “long-term strategic goal”.
“Sadiq Khan’s spin exceeds his actual achievements,” says Gareth Bacon, Tory leader at City Hall. “He has a great media operation, but his attention to detail and policy follow-through [are] sometimes less than the sum of [their] parts.”
Business has been broadly enthusiastic about Khan, not least after he promised to be the most “business-friendly” mayor in the city’s history. Whitbread says he has set out a “really broad and ambitious agenda” in his first year. “We have a great relationship with Sadiq Khan,” she says. “He has faced a range of challenges that were unforeseen, but he has cleared those hurdles pretty well.” But she notes that the first year was more about agenda-setting. “The proof will be in the eating,” she adds.
Colin Stanbridge, chief executive of the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, applauds the mayor for agreeing to embark on future trade missions to drum up business for the capital, and for surrounding himself with pragmatic, business-friendly figures. “He has appointed some really good people as his deputies,” he says.
Some believe that Khan has another long-term strategic objective: to one day become Labour leader. They suggest he is using City Hall to build his own profile. “There was an advert on buses not long ago that said ‘The mayor, Sadiq Khan, has launched the new hopper fare’,” one sceptic points out.
When he was asked in May, however, the mayor insisted he was planning to stand for a second term in 2020. “Why give up the best job in the world to be Labour leader?” he said.
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