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7 March 2022

Frustrated ambitions inside Sadiq Khan’s City Hall

Having faced three Tory prime ministers, Brexit and Covid-19, what is the Mayor of London achieving in a hostile political environment?

By Anoosh Chakelian

One Wednesday evening in September 2021, as Boris Johnson was in the midst of a brutal cabinet reshuffle, his successor as Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, welcomed journalists to drinks at City Hall’s London Living Room: a glassy top-floor space with a panoramic view of the Thames.

He joked to reporters that he had just had a productive meeting with the government minister Oliver Dowden, only to find out shortly afterwards that he had been reshuffled out of his job as culture secretary.

This was an amusing footnote in a strategy Khan had been attempting since his re-election in May 2021: forging a friendlier relationship with the Tory government. After years of Brexit battles and culture warring over what ministers called his “woke” plans to diversify the public realm, he wanted to “build bridges” between City Hall and central government.

It would be the last time the building once described as a “glass testicle”, near Tower Bridge, would host the annual gathering.

The London Mayor’s office and London Assembly are soon moving east, down river, to a spiky building called the Crystal at the Royal Docks.

Cash-strapped after a pandemic in which people stopped travelling to work, the Greater London Authority should save £61m from the move — which is also a chance to regenerate another part of the city. Some in City Hall lament the relocation, however, as a potential threat to the gravitas of the mayor’s position (“it’s a bad idea — [City Hall] is a symbol of being in the middle of the action”, says one, “you’re not going to get journalists trekking east, are you?”).

Yet Khan has raised his status as mayor, from public clashes with Donald Trump to being elected chairman of the C40 global network of mayors. To some he is a gifted, pragmatic politician — a “streetfighter” in the words of one official — whose ambitious agenda has admittedly been hindered by sheer bad luck.

Since he was first elected in 2016 Khan has had to steer the city through six terrorist attacks, the Grenfell Tower fire, Brexit and Covid-19. As the first Muslim mayor of a major Western capital, he faces intense and threatening opposition. He has 24/7 police protection, which he opened up about for the first time to the New Statesman last year, saying: “Riding a bike to work is different for me than it is for you. Going for a jog is different for me than it is for you.” (Indeed, his dog, Luna, is so accustomed to his bodyguards that she has been known to draw too much attention to them when they’re out running with him.)

“It’s not about being a celebrity, it’s about doing things — but of course it will make you a very high-profile figure”

To others who have worked closely with him, Khan is too preoccupied with his own publicity, seeking out celebrity photo opportunities and burnishing his image on the world stage — with his eyes on a return to Westminster, where he was the MP for Tooting for 11 years. This criticism, however, was also levelled at his predecessors, Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone, perhaps because of the mayor’s symbolic prominence.

“It’s not about being a celebrity for Sadiq, it’s about doing things,” says Livingstone. “And in terms of becoming the next Labour leader, I’d hoped that would have happened to me! Being Mayor of London is clearly going to make you a very high-profile figure.”

In any case, Khan has a good relationship with the current Labour leader. Although he got along better with Jeremy Corbyn than it publicly appeared (the former leader once tried to block Khan from speaking at the Labour Party conference), dealings with the leader’s office “transformed” when Keir Starmer was elected. The two lawyers knew each other before their time in politics, and their social circles overlap. Some Khan staffers went over to work for Starmer.

Yet Khan’s biggest challenge is the most antagonistic relationship between City Hall and central government to date. As a Conservative mayor, Boris Johnson clashed with the New Labour regime, but the London Olympics in 2012 meant goodwill and funding flowed his way. Now, with the exception of some good relationships with Tory ministers (working with Nadhim Zahawi on the coronavirus vaccination programme, for example), Khan often receives a hostile reception — and the blame for policies in areas largely beyond his control.

“During his time, he’s had three prime ministers, two general elections, the Brexit referendum — the turmoil in Westminster has made it hard to build relations with the government, whose attention has often been elsewhere,” says Nick Bowes, Khan’s director of policy from 2016 to 2021, and head of the Centre for London think tank.

Improving relations with the government was therefore a concerted plan by Khan and his team in 2021. “Now so much of the mayor’s energy is spent on the relationship with central government,” says Bowes.

This underlies decisions that sometimes baffle other Labour figures, most notably his support in September 2021 for Cressida Dick getting a second term as Metropolitan Police commissioner despite numerous scandals in the force, including the fallout from Sarah Everard’s murder by a serving officer. Khan seriously considered Dick’s position after the heavy-handed policing of the vigil for Everard in March 2021, I hear, but it was only last month — after a series of stories exposed a toxic culture within the Met — that he moved against her.

Dick resigned last month, and the relationship between the mayor and those policing his city seems to have hit a low. The Metropolitan Police Federation has declared that it has “no faith” in Khan, and the deputy commissioner told the London Assembly he felt “deeply disappointed” by him.

In the months before Dick resigned some officials in City Hall had become frustrated with what they saw as Khan being slow to act. Labour MPs, too, were becoming antsy. “London MPs wanted her gone sooner,” says a source close to the London Labour party. “There did seem to be an undercurrent of people wanting her gone. For certain in London people were very pissed off.”

“To change the Met, you’re really reliant on that personal relationship between commissioner and mayor”

Catherine West, Labour MP for Hornsey and Wood Green and an ally of Khan, says: “Obviously in our regular meetings, there had been calls for Cressida Dick to go for quite some months, so I think some MPs would feel the response was a little bit slow.

“But on the other hand, I think Sadiq knew that a cultural problem doesn’t just suddenly get sorted if you just take out the top person. It gets worse before it gets better, and I think that’s what’s going to happen now. We’re going to have a lot of really bad crime stories.”

Having been directly involved in hiring Dick, sitting in on job interviews, Khan was also aware that the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, would be the one to appoint her successor — a situation that could bring about more conflict. But even some in his own team were becoming impatient and had to be reminded occasionally of this rationale, I hear.

The whole affair highlighted structural problems with the way the Met commissioner answers both to the home secretary and Mayor of London. Dealing with Patel has been difficult; there has been concern that her special advisers will leak details of her meetings with Khan.

“To drive change within the Met, you’re really reliant on that personal relationship between the commissioner and the mayor,” says a source who was party to this relationship. “If that works, then it works well, if that is less good, or going through a difficult patch, then it becomes almost impossible.”

Cressida Dick and Sadiq Khan had a difficult relationship, but he was wary of replacing her causing more problems. (Photo by Victoria Jones/AFP.)

Most of the London Mayor’s devolved power lies in transport.

Transport for London (TfL), which operates the network, depends on fares for its funding, and these have plummeted since the coronavirus pandemic began. It’s now facing a funding shortfall of £1.1bn in 2022-23.

Despite giving significant bailouts to private rail companies, the government has been playing hardball with TfL, offering only meagre short-term cash injections with big, politically tricky conditions attached. The most recent manifestation of this was two Tube strikes causing chaos in the city on 1 and 3 March. One of the reasons for the RMT union’s action, a review of the pensions of Underground staff, was a condition of the government’s funding.

The mayor’s team describe relying on these hand-to-mouth payments as being “trapped on a life support machine”. Talks with the Treasury and Department for Transport have been so stressful that they have been described internally at TfL as “the worst experience of people’s careers, including the Sandilands disaster [when a tram derailed in 2016, killing seven people]”.

This battle is also a microcosm of Khan’s predicament: his policies, and therefore his reputation, rely on his political opponents.

“Clearly poor old Sadiq Khan isn’t going to get a penny out of bloody Boris Johnson”

“Although I had problems with Blair trying to stop me becoming mayor, I was able to get billions of pounds out of the government for spending on transport and policing and all that,” says Livingstone, who served from 2000 to 2008, during the New Labour years. “And clearly poor old Sadiq Khan isn’t going to get a penny out of bloody Boris Johnson’s government, and that’s part of the problem.”

While the government may be playing politics, it is also guided by its “levelling up” agenda, focusing on the north and Midlands. “As far as they’re concerned, kicking London plays well to the Red Wall, or whatever,” says an official party to the TfL negotiations.

“Post-Brexit, and certainly since 2019, the city has found itself increasingly out on a limb,” says Bowes. “The levelling up agenda has felt on occasions like it is about the rest of the country and not London, and bashing London has become a favoured pastime.”

West admits, “If you can’t even catch a bus in Sheffield, it’s a bit hard to argue that we need more money for the Tube — and yet we actually do.” She adds: “If you looked at the top 20 most disadvantaged areas in the country, most of those would be in London boroughs. People outside of London think we’re just full of oligarchs who go round to Harrods for lunch every day.”

“People outside of London think we’re just full of oligarchs having lunch in Harrods every day”

In fact, City Hall has calculated that 55p of every pound spent on London Underground investment goes outside of London. The city’s electric double decker buses are made in a Ballymena factory, for example, and new Piccadilly Line trains are being built in Goole, East Yorkshire.

While Khan froze fares for five years, introduced the Hopper multiple bus pass and brought in the Night Tube, funding woes threaten to cast a shadow over some of these victories. TfL is awaiting a long-term capital deal from the government and cannot currently commit to capital spending. It is due at the end of March, but insiders feel pessimistic.

Khan has also tripled the network of protected cycle routes, adding 100km-plus new and upgraded cycleways, with journeys made by bicycle increasing by 48 per cent between 2019 and 2020. Walking, too, has increased 43 per cent in that time.

London Underground trains at sit at a depot during the strike on 1 March, partly in response to conditions on funding demanded by the government. (Photo by Chris Gorman/Getty Images.)

Most significantly, Khan is committed to cleaning up London’s air. This was a central part of his original mayoral campaign, after he had asthma diagnosed following his training for the 2014 London marathon.

Since he was elected in 2016 the air quality has significantly improved. The Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez), which he introduced in 2019, will be expanded to Greater London (the “Glulez”) by the end of next year, as announced on 4 March 2022.

Setting the city on “the path to cleaner air” could be his “lasting legacy”, says Bowes. “Prioritising efforts to improve the city’s air quality was a brave thing to do. If you remember back to 2016, I don’t think the public were fully aware of the health consequences of polluted air. But he has changed that and shown that a politician through leadership can be both an educator and an improver of people’s lives.”

“Of course, the urgency of expanding the Ulez is money”

Of course, expanding the Ulez will also bring in much-needed cash. “We’re talking about it in terms of cutting congestion, air quality and so on, and of course it will do those things, but the urgency is money,” says a TfL insider.

“These are really difficult political decisions,” says West, “because a lot of low-income people who drive their car either because of work or because they have a lot of children or they’re carers, they will be disadvantaged by the Ulez, for example, and yet the difference in air quality — if you live inside the North Circular or South Circular, you can feel it.

“No politician enjoys taking on those difficult decisions but in the end, that is transition. That is what we have to do to make those big leaps.”

Angering motorists can be a nasty business for Khan, already a target of racist and Islamophobic abuse. The furious response to Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (a central government policy championed by Johnson) has often been directed at Khan, and is where “culture wars and climate wars intersect” in the words of one City Hall insider.

“The bottom line with the money is that, well, we’re screwed”

“It would’ve been really easy two years ago for Sadiq to have said: ‘Guys, I don’t think I can take the abuse.’ Sadly, there is quite a lot of far-right, very threatening language,” says West.

The Glulez decision was a long time coming, however, and Khan can sometimes be “risk averse” and “prone to triangulation”, according to policymakers involved in the plans. I hear there was a “tumbleweed” meeting when Khan was presented with road-charging options — including the Glulez — as late as January this year.

There are also concerns about denial both in City Hall and TfL about the new normal of Londoners’ travel habits. Weekday Tube use is still only at 60 per cent of pre-pandemic levels. “The bottom line is that money’s not coming back — not from central government, nor the fare box, so how do you rethink it?” asks an official close to proceedings. “There’s certainly no public acknowledgement, and I’ve seen no internal acknowledgement, that those kind of figures are never coming back. The bottom line with the money is that, well, we’re screwed.”

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Some green campaigners and transport experts have also been disappointed with the mayor’s roadbuilding project, the Silvertown Tunnel, and his failure so far to fulfil his 2016 manifesto pledge to work with Westminster Council to pedestrianise Oxford Street (a move the Tory council blocked).

Christian Wolmar, a transport expert who ran against Khan for the Labour mayoral candidacy in 2015, says: “We are becoming more of a cycling city, and the Ulez is a radical introduction. But Silvertown, the Oxford Street issue — we don’t see an overall agenda of a new vision for the city here, that’s what’s lacking.

“Oxford Street does not work. I recognise Westminster Council stopped it being pedestrianised, but I’d have liked to have seen more aggression around that – given Covid, he could’ve grabbed the initiative to do something radical there.”

On crime in London, central government is accountable for a record court backlog after years of cuts to the justice system. Yet Khan is associated by some sections of the right-wing media with a rise in knife crime towards the beginning of his mayoralty (which was actually in line with a national trend). This is despite serious violent crime resulting in injury being down 15 per cent, gun crime 25 per cent, and under-25 knife crime 27 per cent since Khan became Mayor in 2016, according to City Hall figures.

“Being London Mayor is a high-profile role but it’s like being a council leader, really”

“London Mayor is a very high-profile role with a lot of ‘leadership’ attached to it, but it’s like being a council leader, really, in that you are still very tied to government in terms of finance,” says West, who was previously head of Islington Council before being elected to parliament in 2015. “It’s really the Ministry of Justice that’s not dealing with the cases and the backlog, and yet that has a real effect on knife crime.”

After transport, housing is the most significant London mayoral power. Khan is associated with moving away from Johnson’s focus on luxury flats, ditching the definition of “affordable” housing as homes costing up to 80 per cent of market rents.

Last year more new council homes started being built in London than at any point since the 1970s, and since 2016 the proportion of affordable homes in developments approved by Khan has almost doubled to 40 per cent. Yet the target since March 2021 has been 52,000 new homes a year for ten years, revised down from 66,000, with a long-term target for 50 per cent of homes in new developments to be affordable. These have so far been missed.

“London boroughs wanting to build on the greenbelt are being blocked by the mayor’s office”

“We’re now building roughly 40,000 a year,” says Anthony Breach, a housing analyst at the Centre for Cities think tank. “Sadiq has sustained big improvements that have been made over multiple mayors to the supply of housing within London, but London has struggled to get up to that original target of about 66,000 a year.”

Khan is lobbying for the £4.9bn of central government funding that he says London needs for affordable housing. Yet Breach and other housing experts argue that his reluctance to build on the greenbelt is hindering London’s homebuilding potential. “Some London boroughs want to release green land suitable for development, but are being blocked by the mayor’s office,” says Breach. “If the mayor needs to increase new housing supply by over 50 per cent to reach these housing targets, it’s not possible without some kind of release of greenbelt land; it’s a huge bottleneck.”

For such a mighty city that still acts as England’s centre of gravity, London has been shaken by recent ruptures in national and international politics.

After the invasion of Ukraine it is now under scrutiny in relation to the laundering of illicit Russian money. Khan is calling for the seizure of property connected to oligarchs, another feature of the capital that he has little concrete power to change.

“It’s not an equal power relationship so the mayor — and any mayor, for that matter — is left at the mercy of Whitehall,” says Bowes. “This is actually a symptom of the poor way power has been dispersed in the UK. It is often delegation not devolution.”

The danger before the next London mayoral election in 2024 is that this relationship turns into a “sustained war of attrition over funding”, he warns.

“I’m in favour of massive devolution from central government,” says Livingstone, who was granted new housing powers by the New Labour government towards the end of his mayoralty in 2006. “I’m sure [Sadiq] wants that too.”

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