The mayor of London was speaking to me in a wood-panelled committee room with a view of Royal Victoria Dock on the ground floor of London’s City Hall. He was charming, plying compliments and asking questions. A Garmin watch was strapped to his wrist. His hair was carefully combed. Dark bags spread from his eyelids to his cheek bones. We were discussing levelling up.
“If you reduce the size of the contribution of London,” he was saying, “the cake gets smaller because there’s less money to go around the rest of the country.” Staving off attempts to divert money from the capital to the rest of the country animates Khan. “We contribute net each year, roughly speaking, £42bn to the Treasury. If you clip our wings, our ability to contribute that is not enhanced. It’s diminished.”
Khan, 52, is one of Labour’s most prominent politicians, a serial election winner and a rare example of the party in power. He’s running for a third term in office. First elected in 2016, Khan is midway through his second, which has been dominated by his divisive expansion of the Ultra Low Emission Zone, which charges drivers of older, more polluting vehicles, and scandals at the Metropolitan Police, which he oversees.
In March an independent report by Baroness Casey condemned the police service as institutionally racist, sexist and homophobic. Should the Met be broken up?
“At the moment, the jury’s still out,” Khan said. “But I think we may have to come back to that in two years’ time if we’ve not made the progress we need to make.” He doesn’t think the oft-made comparison to the police constabulary in Northern Ireland, the breaking up and reform of which involved Keir Starmer, is apt. He continued: “But I can’t rule it out – that if we don’t make the reforms we need to make… you’ve got to do something really, really, really radical. And that means breaking it up.”
He was “disappointed” that the new commissioner, Sir Mark Rowley, didn’t accept the Casey report in full. But “Sir Mark understands there are serious problems that need addressing. When he applied for the job, he was quite clear about wanting to be the greatest reformer of the police service since [the Met commissioner] Robert Mark in the 1970s.”
The work of which Khan is proudest, as he writes in his new book Breathe: Tackling the Climate Emergency, is on the environment. The book tells the story of a former Land Rover Discovery driver and advocate for a third runway at Heathrow who, after developing asthma, sets out on a mission to tackle air pollution as London mayor. Khan has delivered: since the Ulez scheme was introduced in 2019, toxic nitrogen oxides have been cut by around a quarter.
It’s become de rigueur for members of the shadow cabinet to write books. But they’re not in power; Khan is. So why did he write one?
“It’s very difficult either in 140 characters, or in a speech, or in an article to tell a story about a long journey,” he said. He was anxious to make clear the book didn’t detract from his day job. He wrote the majority between Christmas and New Year in 2021. His usual six hours of sleep was cut to five. It was hard, but worth it. “Books are really good vehicles to tell a story,” he continued, his voice hushed and considered. “I did not want it to be – it is not – a political memoir.”
Khan has known Starmer, a fellow human rights lawyer, for more than 20 years and endorsed him for the Labour leadership. He’s complimentary about Starmer, as you’d expect, but full of advice. After he lambasted the Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s rhetoric on immigration as “corrosive, dangerous and not befitting anybody who understands what makes our island so great, and makes London the greatest city in the world”, I asked him whether he supported Labour’s own hardened line on immigration.
“Of course, there’s got to be controls,” he said. “I think the way you talk about these things does matter. I think language does matter.” He continued: “We’ve got to be a bit careful in that effort to show we understand people’s concerns and fears, [but] we don’t play on them. The easy thing to do is to play on their fears, and blame migrants and a lot of politicians do that in mainstream parties.”
Starmer has also pivoted from advocating for a second Brexit referendum to accepting the result of the first. Khan welcomes the national party’s co-option of the language of “take back control”. He said he respects the result of the referendum even if he’s still “unhappy” about it. But he thinks the party needs to be honest about the costs of leaving the EU. He describes the present situation as an “extreme hard Brexit”.
He thinks now is the time to consider re-joining the customs union and the single market. “[The conversation] is already happening,” he said, pointing to meetings between Starmer, Rachel Reeves and business leaders, who are complaining about labour shortages. “I don’t want my party to take a vow of silence.”
“And you can have that conversation and say at the same time, I’m not suggesting we re-join yet because we can’t for a generation, I’m afraid, and I am afraid.” He added: “There is an argument, by the way, that a political party that has a manifesto that says re-join – that [constitutes] the mandate [to re-join]. There’s an argument, right, which is to be discussed…” He started laughing mischievously. “We’re not there.”
His point is that, even with convergence with the EU under a Labour government, being outside of it is worse for the UK. Khan has prepared his lines for the debate to come. “Me having a day pass to your tennis club is great because I can pay to go and use your tennis club. But it still doesn’t beat being a member of the tennis club.”
I was surprised at the alacrity with which Khan volunteered a metaphor as revealing as the “tennis club”. I put it to him that this is what people voted against in 2016. That they didn’t want to be part of the tennis club because they thought it was full of people who didn’t understand them.
“Well, that’s why Keir’s policy is what it is, right?” he replied. “Keir Starmer and the national party do understand the concerns of those who are unhappy with the tennis club. My point is that I’ve always been somebody who believes quite passionately that being inside the tennis club is much more important.” The UK is a “medium-sized country”, he argued, which makes membership of the EU necessary to influence global issues such as artificial intelligence.
“I know [Leavers] didn’t like the tennis club but I’d ask you the question: are you happy outside the tennis club? Has your serve improved being outside the tennis club playing with minor league players? The irony is those parts of the country that voted to leave the EU are suffering the worst consequences. Here’s an irony of ironies, right? London, actually, is not doing as bad as other parts of the country.” He reminded me of his comments on levelling up.
I asked why he thought people voted for Brexit. “A number of reasons. Those who campaigned for Brexit were playing on people’s fears, not addressing them. It’s the oldest trick in the book to blame the other.”
He said he understood why to those in post-industrial towns who have had no retraining for new jobs “it seems attractive to be told if we leave the EU there will be sunny uplands. I can even understand, by the way, [that] people understood they’d be poorer, but they thought they’d be in charge of their destiny… People were lied to, and they believed the lies.”
“By the way, I’m trying incredibly hard to make life good for those outside the tennis club. Here’s the irony,” he said, hitting the table, “it’s us Remainers who are working incredibly hard to make Brexit a success – isn’t that an irony?”
The irony, I fear, is more tragic: that Remainers are destined to repeat the mistakes of the past.
[See also: The Reeves doctrine: Labour’s plan for power]