TIM WALKER interviews Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, as he tries to remain loyal to Labour’s line on Brexit despite the damage it is causing him politically
With the highest personal mandate of any politician in the country when he was elected mayor of London three years ago, Sadiq Khan is undeniably a rock star of the political firmament. It is, however, this performer’s band, in the shape of Labour, that’s now clearly holding him back – and who, honestly, could blame him for not being tempted to go solo?
Earlier this month, the Evening Standard published a poll that blamed his party’s position on Brexit for his share of first preference votes falling from 55% to a desultory 43% since December. On the day I talk to him, Gina Miller’s Remain United organisation has published statistics that show Labour’s share of the vote would increase from 34% to 55% if it were to come out unambiguously against Brexit.
Khan listens to me without any great sense of surprise as I recite the figures to him, but, as someone who professes not to be a “tribal politician”, he isn’t apparently tempted to “do a Heseltine” and let it be known that he is himself voting, say, Lib Dem in the EU elections because they are at least unambiguous on the issue of Brexit.
A mayor who personally wants to remain in the EU, who is the representative of a city that collectively does, Khan’s sense of frustration with his party is plainly intense.
“Politics is not just about figures and chasing poll ratings and that’s not what I have ever been about,” he insists. “It’s no secret that I have made it quite clear to my party leadership where I stand on Brexit and often we have been at odds. We have had clear differences. The leadership has, however, moved a huge amount from where they were two years ago, but still we do of course need greater clarity.
“I should add that we have all been on a journey. Immediately after we had the referendum, it was my position that we should leave the EU, as that was what had been on the ballot paper. But, since then, it has become very clear to what extent we were misled by the Leave side.
“No one was talking during that campaign about the Irish border, what this process would really mean for the NHS and for business, and so many other issues and how it would now result in parliament being gridlocked in the way that it has become.
“Now, of course, we know what is going to be possible in terms of the deal we can get with the European Union and what is not.
“I don’t believe that Labour can now conclude a successful Brexit deal for the simple reason that we cannot get into a Tardis and start this process all over again.
“We have to think now in terms of what is practical and what is not.”
Khan has clearly been rattled by what Brexit is doing to the Labour Party and, by implication, to his own popularity as mayor of London, and he is doing back-to-back interviews on the day we speak.
He has, in person, always been affable and laid back when we have spoken the past, but there is an anxiety in his voice I have not heard before, and, I have to say, a sudden and uncharacteristic reluctance to answer questions directly.
I ask him how a vote for Labour could now by any stretch of the imagination be considered to be a vote against Brexit. Even my New European colleague Alastair Campbell couldn’t say for sure the other day. “Let’s be clear where we are now,” says Khan. “The talks between Labour and the Conservatives have broken down. There is no way that Brexit can be delivered without the support of the Labour Party.
“Mrs May’s present deal does not command the support even of her own party. Whatever other deal she or her successor comes up with, it has to get through parliament. Whatever the outcome of that, Labour’s position is to give the public a chance to vote on the final deal with an option to remain.
“Labour has not been as clear as they should have been on this and we should have been saying this some time ago, but we have got there in the end.”
That seems to me to be at best a fanciful interpretation of the present situation, and, tellingly, when I ask him if he wasn’t tearing his hair out as he watched Jeremy Corbyn equivocate on Brexit on The Andrew Marr Show over the weekend – not least on the issue of free movement – he declined to get into a debate about the extent that it had left him follicly challenged.
Khan doesn’t dispute that Brexit has now become as much a moral as a political issue which will decide the kind of people we have become. He knows better than most how high the stakes are.
He has 24-hour police protection after receiving repeated threats on social media. In a three-month period last year, City Hall received 237 threats and 17 cases were referred to the police.
“In the European elections, we have seen a massive surge in support for the Brexit Party and the far right and we all need to be clear about where this could lead us.
“As far as I am concerned, Nigel Farage does not represent the British people. We are renowned around the world for our sense of fair play, our tolerance and our decency.
“It’s also about our reputation. If you want to see people like Farage and his clones in Brussels spewing out the stuff that they are, just think about how our country will be perceived around the world.”
It is anyone’s guess on what side Corbyn would eventually decide to campaign, even if a confirmatory or People’s Vote might yet prove to be possible. But Khan himself is clear on what side he will be.
“I will be out there campaigning night and day with people like you for the United Kingdom to stay in the European Union. I would be campaigning not on Project Fear – the big mistake of the last campaign – but on the positive benefits that we will all share by remaining in the EU, talking in terms of the facts and not the fantasies.
“It would be a fight that I would give everything I have to win because it will define us as a people.”