‘I’ve heard he’s a great guy, this mayor,’ shouted Sadiq Khan to no one in particular as he arrived in the foyer of the Gilded Balloon at the Edinburgh Festival. He barged past me and headed for the auditorium. ‘Treat him gently, please. No heckling,’ he added, talking about himself.
The audience moved into the sweltering venue where Khan answered questions from Iain Dale for 60 minutes. Some had been submitted in advance by the audience.
‘How confident are you of winning a second catastrophic term?’ That came from a disgruntled London voter. Khan looked a bit uncomfortable and muttered something about avoiding complacency. ‘It’s going to be very hard to win again.’ Another indignant Londoner said he had witnessed five crimes on the streets in recent months. ‘Do the police have London under control?’ he asked. Khan flipped the question to make himself seem competent and reasonable. ‘You’re asking me if the police are worried about a lack of numbers? Yeah, they are.’
As always he blamed Whitehall for shrinking London’s police force. And while he welcomed Boris Johnson’s vow to hire 20,000 extra bobbies, he threw in a caveat. ‘It’ll take three years. We need them much quicker.’ Much quicker – means the new cops will be inexperienced and not properly trained. An odd policy.
Dale had done his homework and discovered that Khan’s early career was a little chaotic. He considered dentistry before taking up the law. He held a job in the soft furnishings department of Peter Jones in Sloane Square. And he even gave stand-up comedy a try.
‘Tell us a gag,’ said Dale. ‘Why is Boris Johnson the easiest patient for a surgeon to operate on? Because he’s brainless and gutless. And his head and his arse are interchangeable.’ That got a big laugh from the crowd, most of them Edinburgh locals, who gave Khan a tremendously warm reception.
‘London voted Remain. So did Scotland. We should build a flyover between my city and yours.’ Asked about Donald Trump and his Khan-bashing tweets, he said, ‘the man’s obsessed with me.’ And he wondered, reasonably enough, why the US president finds time to slap down the mayor of a foreign capital. ‘Any Theresa May stories?’ said Dale. ‘Well, you’ve got to be kind about people,’ Khan mused, pulling a face. ’But she is a bit strange.’ She rarely speaks, he said. And she makes no eye contact at all, even during official meetings. ‘She’s very comfortable in silence,’ Dale suggested helpfully.
Khan recalled a bilateral meeting with May in Whitehall soon after his election as mayor. She was then the Home Secretary. ‘She said virtually nothing. But straight afterwards her publicist told the Evening Standard that she’d given me a rollicking for not building enough affordable homes. She hadn’t! I spoke for 97 per cent of the time.’
When Dale brought up Brexit, Khan fretted about empty supermarket shelves and vanishing medical supplies. ‘Isn’t that irresponsible scare-mongering?’ said Dale. The harbour-managers at both Dover and Calais have downplayed the likelihood of traffic-flow problems, he added.
Khan redoubled his efforts. ‘The former head of Sainsbury’s said on Newsnight that we’ve got enough food for 10 days. Brexit’s due to happen just eight weeks before Christmas. We won’t have fresh fruit or fresh food.’ This is the latest Project Fear fantasy. Brexit means cancelling Christmas. Khan took issue with Boris’s failure to ‘bridge the gap between the 48 per cent and the 52,’ and he suggested a remedy which the crowd seemed to appreciate. ‘Let’s pause. Withdraw Article 50. Work out a deal with the EU. Then re-implement Article 50.’
Khan’s predecessor as London mayor is now prime minister. Dale asked if Khan wants to tread the same path. ‘No,’ he said with an air of finality. ‘I’ve got the best job in politics.’ ‘That’s what Boris used to say.’ ‘Yeah but Boris is a liar.’ We’ll see.