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16 August 2016

What Sadiq Khan’s first 100 days reveal about his mayoralty

Brexit has complicated an already formidable in-tray. But the mayor's purpose has never been clearer. 

By George Eaton

“With Labour in power … we can make a real difference to people’s lives,” read an email sent to party staff by Sadiq Khan today. While his former parliamentary colleagues have been locked in a struggle for the opposition’s soul, Khan has been running London.

Today marks 100 days since his election as mayor on 5 May (when he achieved the largest personal mandate of any politician in UK history). Khan’s status as the first Muslim head of a major western city guaranteed him domestic and international prominence. It was on his second day in the job that Donald Trump conceded that he might be an “exception” to his planned ban on believers. “If he does a good job, and frankly if he does a great job, that would be a terrific thing,” the Republican candidate declared.

It was a Faustian offer that Khan wisely spurned. “This isn’t just about me – it’s about my friends, my family and everyone who comes from a background similar to mine, anywhere in the world,” he said. “Donald Trump and those around him think that western liberal values are incompatible with mainstream Islam – London has proved him wrong.”

In an era of increasing political intolerance, Khan has been a potent symbol of the capital’s pluralism and diversity. It was in a multi-faith ceremony at Southwark Cathedral, rather than the bureaucratic surroundings of City Hall, that he was inaugurated.

But Khan wants to be a mayor of substance, rather then merely symbolism. He entered office with a rich policy agenda (including more than 200 manifesto commitments), framing himself as an interventionist after the lackadaisical Boris Johnson. Since publishing a critical report on air quality suppressed by his predecessor, Khan has made the issue – the cause of 10,000 premature deaths a year – a priority. The mayor, who suffers from adult-onset asthma, is consulting on a stringent anti-pollution plan. Proposals include a £10 surcharge on the dirtiest vehicles from 2017, the extension of the Ultra-Low Emission Zone beyond central London from 2020 and the development of a potential national diesel scrappage scheme.

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Khan was elected on a pledge to reduce the cost of living for Londoners (as his friend and ally Ed Miliband had proposed on a national level) and has already made good on several promises. TfL fares have been frozen for four years, in line with his manifesto commitment (though the rise in Travelcard prices led to accusations of deception). The bus “hopper” ticket, allowing two journeys in one hour, will be introduced next month.

“The council estate boy who’ll fix the Tory housing crisis” was how Khan’s campaign leaflets billed him. Forthcoming guidance will impose a tougher definition of “affordability” than used by either his predecessor or the government and the promised “London living rent” (based on average household earnings, rather than market rates) is being developed. The mayor has retained his 50 per cent affordable construction target (more than double the rate achieved under Johnson) but his refusal to set an annual goal has been criticised.

When Johnson and Khan spoke following his election, the former advised him to avoid rushing his appointments (five senior figures either resigned or were fired during Johnson’s first year). It was a lesson that the new mayor heeded, patiently assembling his team over several weeks. Unlike Johnson, he appointed a gender-balanced line-up of deputies. He later released a City Hall pay audit, finding that male full-time workers were paid 4.6 per cent more than their female counterparts – a gap he has vowed to eradicate.

At directorate level, Khan retained the trusted group that won him the mayoralty: Patrick Hennessy (communications), David Bellamy (chief of staff), Jack Stenner (political strategy), Nick Bowes (policy) and Leah Kreitzman (external affairs and international relations). Insiders speak of how their familiarity and loyalty mark a break with the days of Johnson when advisers were played off against each other.

There is no competition for the defining political moment of Khan’s initial tenure: Brexit. The mayor campaigned vigorously for Remain, sharing a platform with David Cameron (who only weeks before had denounced him as an Islamist fellow traveller) and appearing in the Wembley debate (during which he broke his Ramadan fast after 19 hours). But while London voted for EU membership by a comfortable margin – 60-40 – it was the only English region to do so.

Brexit has complicated an already formidable in-tray. But it has also given Khan even greater political purpose. As London’s elected head, he will act as its champion in the coming negotiations. He has demanded formal representation for the capital in the talks, vowing to push for full access to the single market.

In the anarchic days that followed the referendum, it was Khan who reassured the city’s European residents that there would be no immediate change to their status. The ensuring “London is open” campaign has formed the most iconic part of his mayoralty. Brexit has strengthened his pre-existing case for further devolution, including health, social care, skills, further education and new tax raising powers. “Now London must take back control,” he declared five days after the referendum, ironically deploying the Brexiters’ slogan of choice.

The capital has been mercifully free of the terrorist attacks that have afflicted its European counterparts. But the Russell Square stabbings earlier his month represented a significant security challenge. It was Khan himself, on holiday in the Mediterranean at the time, who insisted that he should return. Mindful of Johnson’s much-derided absence during the 2011 riots, he recognised his crucial role in providing public reassurance.

After defence secretary Michael Fallon warned before Khan’s election that London would not be “safe” under him, the mayor wasted little time in demonstrating his commitment to security. He launched a terror preparedness review led by the former Met Police Authority chair Toby Harris and announced the deployment of 600 more armed officers on the street after “recent deadly attacks in Europe”. With impeccable timing, the day after Johnson withdrew from the Conservative leadership election, he also pledged to sell the £200,000 water cannon purchased by his predecessor to fund youth services.

In his email to party staff, Khan pointedly referred to “Labour in government”. Though the opposition has won back City Hall after eight years, it has rarely been further from power in Westminster. Khan has so far avoided directly intervening in the party’s leadership contest but rebel MPs hope his example speaks for itself. Labour, Khan told LBC on 21 July, should elect “[the] leader that gives us the best chance of winning the next general election”, inviting listeners to draw their own conclusions. In time, an increasing number in the party believe, it is Khan himself who could lead Labour back to power. But for now, in a sense that was never true of his predecessor, it is London that has his full attention.