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Sadiq Khan has an idle daydream of turning London into a self-governing city state, shrugging off Britain’s Brexit vote and setting up a border around the M25 orbital motorway. “I love the sound of ‘El Presidente’,” says the capital’s new mayor. “But it’s not going to happen.”
Instead Khan and the city he runs have to live with the verdict of the British people on June 23 to leave the EU, even though the capital voted by a margin of 60-40 to remain. “I’m proud of the fact London was the only region in England to vote to remain,” he says. Never has London felt more adrift from the rest of the country.
While parts of Britain appear to be cut off from globalisation and the free flow of money, talent and ideas into the country, London is plugged directly into the live current that has shaped the world in the 21st century. The mayor believes London is the pre-eminent global city and wants it to remain so when the UK leaves the EU.
“I’ve spent most of my waking hours since the Friday morning post Brexit speaking to chief executives, entrepreneurs and investors, saying that London is open,” he says. “It’s not simply a state of mind or an attitude — it’s what we are: open for talent, for business, for investment.”
Khan looks out from the rooftop of City Hall at the grey clouds over the City of London and admits that Brexit has raised doubts about the future in some minds and has prompted the capital’s rivals to begin laying out the red carpet for people and companies that are thinking about leaving.
“The mayor of Milan is here trying to pinch our work,” the quick-talking 45-year-old says. “Not unreasonably, Paris, Frankfurt, Berlin and Dublin are trying to court our businesses.” The question hanging over London is whether it can continue to be an open gateway to Europe and the world after the UK leaves the EU. Khan says London’s voice must be heard as the new British prime minister Theresa May begins negotiating exactly what Brexit will look like. He adds that it is vital Britain retains access to the single market and that international banks in the City continue to have “passporting” rights that allow them to sell services across the EU.
France and Germany are discussing whether London should be allowed to continue with its lucrative euro clearing trade and Khan knows that the capital’s financial services are the most exposed to the risks of Brexit.
He has two responses. First, London will continue to flourish outside the EU because global finance wants to be in the city, for its time zone, language, schools, culture and lifestyle. “Given the choice of going to Frankfurt or coming to London, they prefer London,” he says.
The mayor also believes the capital must diversify its economy and expand sectors such as culture, creative industries, technology and low carbon. He adds a proviso: “I don’t want people to think that by saying that I want to diversify London’s economy I am accepting that London’s financial services are going to shrink.”
The Brexit vote left many in London bewildered and angry, with some suggesting — only half-jokingly — that it should set itself up as some kind of independent city state. Khan, the Muslim son of a Pakistani bus driver, is a symbol of London’s cosmopolitan and open nature. He says the city needs more self-rule. “Our population is 3m more than Scotland’s and it’s three times the size of Wales’s. [It] is set to grow from 8.6m to 10m — just that growth is more than the population of Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast put together.”
Khan is pressing the government to devolve more powers over areas such as borrowing, housing, planning and health to City Hall and to let London hold on to more of the taxes raised on its citizens and businesses (currently redistributed to parts of Britain that often resent the capital’s growing might).
“Just to give you an idea of the comparison, we [kept] 7 per cent of taxes raised in London versus 50 per cent in New York and 70 per cent in Tokyo,” he says.
The city certainly needs the investment. As it continues to grow, Khan has identified affordable housing as a priority, strongly criticising the former Conservative mayor Boris Johnson — now the UK foreign secretary — for failing to secure more low-cost homes on sites such as the Olympic park in east London.
He also believes that the city urgently needs new rail investment, including a north-south Crossrail 2 link, an extended Bakerloo Underground line and a bigger light rail network in the Docklands — an area that is taking shape as the capital’s 21st-century face.
Khan says that the prime minister should make a quick decision — already long delayed — on expanding airport capacity. But he argues a new runway should be built not at Heathrow, whose flight path crosses much of west London, but in the fields to the south at Gatwick.
“If the government says yes to a new runway at Heathrow, it means years and years of legal challenges and legal obstacles,” he says. “So the way to get on with it is to say yes to a new runway at Gatwick.”
Khan was elected mayor in May in the face of a campaign by the Tory candidate Zac Goldsmith, a millionaire environmentalist, who was accused of trying to link him with Islamic extremism. It was a campaign that backfired, as Londoners turned out in larger-than-expected numbers to back the Labour candidate.
While Labour nationally descended into civil war over the leadership of the leftwing Jeremy Corbyn, Khan wants to show that the party can be trusted with power. (He came out in favour of Corbyn’s rival, Owen Smith, in the leadership election.) He has promised to run “the most business-friendly” City Hall regime yet and has hired some of Labour’s best staffers from across the river at Westminster. He refers to City Hall as “Noah’s Ark — a refugee camp” for those fleeing the party’s internal chaos. It is clearly a power base from which he might one day try to achieve his own national ambitions.
Khan’s victory suggests London is too diverse to care whether its mayor is a Muslim or from any other background. He points out that 1m Londoners are from other EU countries and that they keep the capital’s hospitals and building sites running. “It’s crucial for us to provide certainty to those Londoners of EU origin,” he says. “They need certainty and shouldn’t be used as bargaining chips.”
But the mayor is perhaps better placed than most to understand that for all London’s attempts at integration, Islamic extremism remains a threat. “The one thing that keeps you up at night is the issue of terror threats to London,” he says.
Several factors may explain why London has not as he speaks suffered a large-scale Islamist terrorist attack since 2005. “Being an island obviously helps, so does being in charge of our borders,” he says. “The lack of availability of automatic weapons obviously helps, so has the success of very good police and security services in stopping people. We’ve been lucky.
“We shouldn’t be complacent. Just because we haven’t had a Nice or a Paris or a Brussels doesn’t mean things are hunky-dory, because they are not.” He points to young girls in London being radicalised in their bedrooms and going to Syria to become Isis brides. He is investing in more community policing to try to build up intelligence in vulnerable communities.
But in spite of the Brexit vote and the threat of Islamic extremism, Khan wants to keep up the flow of EU migrants to the capital, making good on his slogan “London is open”. He is even asking the government to look at the idea of a “London visa” to ensure employers continue to have access to the world’s best talent. They would vouch for the fact that a recruit had housing and a job in London, and would not be a burden on the state.
Dreams of becoming El Presidente? “Well, a London visa scares off people because it sounds difficult,” Khan says. “But if you think about it in a different way — about London businesses having the ability to recruit talent — that’s a different discussion. Nothing should be off the table.”