Labour's Sadiq Khan is elected as the first Muslim mayor of London
Patrick Sawer traces Sadiq Khan's rise from a council estate to London's City Hall and finds an ambitious man willing to shift positions and appear on some controversial public platforms
Published 08/05/2016 | 02:30
When he walks into London's City Hall as mayor, Sadiq Khan will have the British capital at his feet, controlling a budget of £17bn (€21.5bn) with power over transport, policing and planning.
The son of a bus driver and a seamstress from Pakistan, Khan could not be more different from his Old Etonian predecessor, the Conservative Boris Johnson.
Much has been made, not least by his own side, of Khan's humble origins. There is certainly something of the Dick Whittington about him; the hard-working boy whose migrant family came to London in search of a better life, he grew up on a south London council estate and ended up becoming mayor.
But only the next few months will tell whether Khan really is the embodiment of the modern, aspirational Londoner, at ease with the city's multiracial identity and its place in the world, or whether the reality - as is often the case - is more complicated than that.
For on his way to the top Khan has attracted accusations that he is an ambitious opportunist, willing to change sides when it suits him.
Worse, there have been claims that the new mayor has shown a serious lack of judgment over the type of person with whom he has been willing to share a political platform in the past.
During the mayoral campaign, his Conservative rival Zac Goldsmith repeatedly accused Khan of having given "platform, oxygen and cover" to religious and political extremists.
Both Goldsmith and the British prime minister David Cameron pointed to Suliman Gani, a south London Islamic cleric who has spoken alongside Khan on numerous occasions.
The Conservatives pointed out that Khan shared a platform with Gani in August 2004 at an event organised by Stop Political Terror, a now defunct extremist group that included among its supporters the senior al-Qa'ida figure Anwar al-Awlaki.
The previous year, Khan had attended a conference which was also addressed by Yasser al-Siri, a convicted terrorist, and Sajeel Abu Ibrahim, a member of the now banned organisation al-Muhajiroun, who trained the 7/7 bomber Mohammad Sidique Khan.
There were other examples, but each time Khan pointed out that politicians do not always have the luxury of vetting who they might be speaking alongside at events.
While that may be true and while it also emerged that Gani opposed some of Kahn's liberal politics, particularly on gay marriage rights, the number of occasions on which he stood alongside similarly suspect individuals continues to trouble many observers.
The accusations against Khan were personally wounding, not just to him but to many Muslims.
In an interview with the New Statesman in March, he said: "I get people approaching me all the time who are Muslim who say, 'If they're doing this to you, what chance have I got?' or, 'You're encouraging us to get involved in mainstream politics, yet this is how you're treated.'"
In fact, the tactic of linking Khan to extremists appeared to backfire, galvanising Khan's supporters and alienating other voters.
Questions remain, however, over the type of case Khan chose to take when he was still an ambitious young lawyer, and eventually a partner, with the London firm Christian Khan, which specialised in human rights legislation.
Critics have pointed out that there was an unmistakeable anti-police, anti-establishment theme to many of the cases he handled.
Khan's response was that much of his work as a human rights lawyer involved representing or advising figures who many people might find "unsavoury", but who nevertheless deserved a fair hearing in court.
Another charge levelled against Khan is that of political opportunism. This was evident last summer when he was among those Labour MPs who nominated Jeremy Corbyn, enabling him to run for the Labour leadership.
Khan did not support Corbyn for the role, voting instead for Andy Burnham, but it was a move which allowed him to appeal to the Left of the party when it came to the contest to become Labour's candidate for mayor of London a few months later.
Yet he quickly began to distance himself from Mr Corbyn. No sooner was he installed as candidate than he began to air concerns over the Labour leader's association with Hamas and Hezbollah, saying they reinforced Labour's "anti-Jewish" image.
He also criticised Mr Corbyn for failing to sing the national anthem.
"He was very unwise. You are trying to be the British prime minister," he said.
It was a smart move - and one he repeated when he attacked Ken Livingstone for his Hitler comments in the last days of the campaign - allowing him to appeal to moderate voters while Labour activists were heading ever more Leftward.
And it is a move that Khan looks likely to repeat to distance himself further from the Labour leader. In the Observer today he will accuse some in the party of failing to engage with voters and wasting its energies on internal squabbles.
But Khan's shifting attitude towards Mr Corbyn is also being seen as a sign that he is willing to be all things to all people, allowing voters to project on him whatever they want for a leader.
An example of this was Khan's attitude to the thorny question of Heathrow expansion. In June last year, he declared that he was opposed a third runway at Heathrow in favour of Gatwick. This was the reverse of his position as transport minister under Gordon Brown in 2009.
But Khan had an explanation for his about-turn. "I accept the case for an increase in flight capacity in this part of the country. I think the case has been made for jobs and growth. But in the last full year for which there's data almost 10,000 Londoners died because of air pollution. In those circumstances, you can't say yes to a new runway at Heathrow," he said.
When, in 2008, he supported Gordon Brown's plans to introduce 42-day detention of the sort of terror suspect he had previously defended, Liberty's then director Shami Chakrabarti expressed her "disappointment" at his lack of "leadership" and "courage".
The perception that Khan is a political opportunist is shared by some of his parliamentary colleagues.
One MP has even compared him to Richard Nixon, telling the Financial Times: "He is unprincipled, but I don't mean that in a negative sense. I see him like Nixon, the primary unprincipled politician of modern times, unknowable, highly successful electorally."
But to others Khan remains an inspiration, not only for what he has achieved, but for what his victory means for London and Britain.
He is, after all, someone who - like many ethnic minority children of his generation - was routinely racially abused as a youngster, but who went on to win the backing of 1.3 million of his fellow citizens, the largest personal mandate of any politician in UK history.
David Lammy, the Labour MP for Tottenham, suggested yesterday that Khan's election as London Mayor was a pivotal moment in British politics.
"If we ever get a prime minister of colour, it will be because of what Sadiq Khan has achieved," he said.
Khan has himself made a virtue of the very thing that arouses the suspicions of small town, rural Britain.
"We all have multiple identities," he said. "I'm a Londoner, I'm British, I'm English, I'm of Asian origin, of Pakistani heritage, I'm a dad, I'm a husband, I'm a long-suffering Liverpool fan, I'm Labour, I'm Fabian and I'm Muslim."
But nagging questions remain. Will the bus driver's son rule London on behalf of everyone - or have his true colours yet to emerge?