Sadiq Khan: ‘Ruthless? No. Decency can get you to the top in politics’

London Mayor Sadiq Khan (Credit: edienet)
London Mayor Sadiq Khan
(Credit: edienet)

Sadiq Khan asks to meet in the Lahore Kahari, his local curry house, in Tooting. I haven’t eaten all morning – don’t want to spoil my appetite. Khan walks in, shakes my hand tightly, sits down and starts talking 10 to the dozen. It’s only a couple of weeks since the election, and he says he’s in the final stage of grief: acceptance. But it’s still painful. “It’s quite upsetting … ” he exhales loudly. “Thoroughly depressing. I was inconsolable.” He apologises for the speed of his delivery. “Two things you know when you’re a Khan: speak fast or you’re not heard, and eat fast or you don’t eat.” I make a mental note to get in quick with the food.

Khan, 44, is one of eight siblings (seven of them boys) born to a bus driver father and housewife-seamstress mother. He grew up in this part of south London, and still lives around here, as does his mother (his father died in 2003) and the rest of his family. He points out of the window to the mosque across the road – his local. The Henry Prince council estate where he grew up is a bus-ride away in Wandsworth; the house his parents later bought is a short walk, and he now lives 10 minutes away with his lawyer wife Saadiya and their two daughters. As local MPs go, you don’t get much more local than Sadiq Khan.


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It’s a fascinating geo-history, but my mouth is watering. “Do you fancy some food?” I say. He looks surprised. “Well, let’s see how we get on.” So we carry on talking, not so much as a poppadom and glass of water between us. I’m beginning to understand why we’re here. Khan, the consummate politician, never misses a photo opportunity – this is Sadiq in his manor.

He asks where I’m from. Manchester, I say. He grins. “Come down here, take our jobs, take our women, bloody immigrants!” Khan could have been created by screenwriter David Simon – say, the successor to Tommy Carcetti as mayor of Baltimore in The Wire. He is fast-walking and fast-talking, with steel behind the smile; a wheeler-dealer with an eye permanently on the prize. (And then the next one.)

As it happens, the MP for Tooting does now hope to be mayor – of London. First, he must see off fellow Labour hopefuls, then dispatch candidates from rival parties. Let’s just say he’s quietly confident; he already has the backing of Unite, the largest trade union, and the GMB.

Khan was one of Ed Miliband’s lieutenants, responsible for the general election campaign in London. “We did very well by the way,” he says. “We kept all 38 seats and won seven others.” So why did Labour get hammered? “There was a concern among those who aren’t poor about what we could do for them, I suspect.” Are the candidates for leadership of the Labour party strong enough? “Let’s wait and see,” he says non-committally. Look me in the eye, I say. He does, but still doesn’t answer with any more conviction. “It’s too early to tell. I’ve got no horse in the race.”

The one thing he won’t do is rubbish Miliband’s legacy. Too many of his colleagues are already doing that, he says, looking back on the Blair years “with rose-tinted glasses”.

“A word I think you’ll hear overused in the leadership contest is ‘aspiration’. It’s used in a pejorative way to suggest we didn’t understand what it meant. I understand what it means. It means your dad working all the overtime hours that London Transport will give you, aspiration means your mum, notwithstanding having eight children, works as a seamstress at home as well to make ends meet. Aspiration means, as a 24-year-old trainee solicitor, sleeping on a bunk bed in your mum and dad’s home to save for a deposit. So I get aspiration.” This is classic Khan – defending Labour while promoting his ability to lead London in the same breath.

During the election campaign, Khan warned Labour MPs who had already announced they were standing for mayor not to put personal ambition before the party. Within a week of Labour losing the election, he stood down as shadow justice minister and shadow minister for London, and announced his bid for the mayor. By his own logic, surely Labour need him in the shadow cabinet? “Yeah, it was a tough one.” Did his daughters, aged 15 and 13, think he should go for the leadership or mayor? “Mayor. Maybe children are smarter than you think, and they saw I’d have much more fun as mayor of London. I’d be able to do what I want to, whereas being leader of the opposition is a far tougher proposition.” It’s a surprising answer – not least because he insists he does not want to be a “red-carpet mayor like Boris”. In the end, he says, it goes back to what London has done for his family, and what he’d like to see it do for future generations.

He loves to tell the story of the bus driver’s son made good; the boy who learned to box to look after himself on a tough estate (two of his brothers became amateur champions), who went on to captain the school’s cricket team and had trials for Surrey, who became a human rights lawyer representing victims of police abuse, and who sacrificed a brilliant legal career to serve his people. It is an inspirational story. And like all good lawyers, he retains the ability to tell it his way, always the master of his own narrative.

Khan began his legal career working with eminent human rights lawyer Louise Christian as a trainee in 1994, when she was in partnership with Mike Fisher. They made Khan a partner in 1997. Five years later Fisher left and the company was renamed Christian Khan. But when Khan was selected as Labour candidate for Tooting in 2004 he quit without notice.

“I walked away from the business. I wasn’t paid out because I wanted to be a full-time politician. It’s never been about money for me, so Louise took over the firm and I became an MP.” It was a brave decision – Khan had no salary for six months while campaigning. But it is also a selective interpretation of events.

I later hear that Khan hired lawyers threatening Christian with legal action unless he was compensated for his share of the company – and that only after Christian suggested a counter-claim (because she and his clients had been left in the lurch by him) did he drop the matter. I ring Khan to ask if it is true. He says he doesn’t know about a counter-claim, but yes, he did threaten legal action. “I was concerned about my tax liability, but ended up taking that on the chin. And strictly speaking, I was entitled to half the firm, and my lawyer advised me to pursue everything I was entitled to. In the end, I decided not to because I wanted to get on with my political career.” Khan admits that he and Christian have not talked since he left the firm.

Christian had been his mentor, and hoped he would one day take over the practice. Does he regret the way things ended? “Yeaaaah,” he says, weighing his words carefully. “But you’ve got to move forward. In my next venture, where I’m mayor of London, I can’t be looking backwards to my 10 years as an MP. You’ve got to move forward.”

As chair of the human rights pressure group Liberty in the early noughties, Khan campaigned against imprisonment without trial, then in 2005 as a new MP voted against Labour’s proposal to hold terrorism suspects for 90 days without charge. “When I first got elected, everyone said, ‘Sadiq’s a rising star, he’s going to go all the way.’ But Blair wanted to pass 90 days, and you’ve got a choice: do you hold true to your beliefs and speak out against it? And I did. It was the first ever defeat Blair had.” Did it make an enemy of Blair? “Oh my God, yeah! There were some people who never forgave me. I was threatened.” How? “That ‘you’re finished as an MP, you’ve got no chance now’. Whips said that, other MPs said that.”

Yet, three years later Khan was the whip responsible for pushing 42-day detention without charge through the Commons. What would the Khan who chaired Liberty make of Khan the politician? “The thing you’ve got to remember is, it’s a different role you’re performing. As the chair of Liberty, your job is to to put pressure on governments of whatever colour, right?” Ultimately, he says, you’ll get nowhere as a politician unless you compromise. “You’ve got to think: do you want to be a megaphone politician or do you want to get things done? ”

Khan has always had a reputation in politics – as he did in law – for getting things done. Do you have to be ruthless to succeed? “Ruthless? No. Decency can get to the top in politics.”

There seems an element of ruthlessness in going from challenging detention without charge to championing it, I say. “No,” he protests, “it’s not about you. It’s about who you did it for. So, when I’m a lawyer, I’m doing it for my client – he or she is the most important person, not me. When I’m a member of parliament, constituents are the most important people. When I’m chair of Liberty, our members are the most important people. And when you’re mayor of London, London is the most important thing. So you’ll be ruthless for your clients, ruthless for your constituents, ruthless for London, without necessarily being ruthless as a person.” You sense that whatever job he does, Khan will always see himself as a lawyer – the eternal advocate.

David, the photographer, arrives. “Your job is to make me look really really good,” Khan tells him, running his hand through his hair. “Clooneyesque is the job spec.” He laughs. “Yes, Clooneyesque.” Is it true he likes to think of himself as “cool and metrosexual”? “This is interesting, you see. When I see my children’s friends’ parents, right, I look at myself and say to my girls, ‘Come on, you’ve got a cool dad, surely?’, but they say, ‘no Dad, you’re not cool.’ They say my taste in music is not cool.” What does he like? “Jay-Z, Paul Weller, Sting.” What else do his girls say about him? “They say I’m a smart Alec because I like to have the last word.”

David suggests, as we’re in the curry house, it would be nice to take pictures of him eating. This time, Khan is more keen. He speaks in Urdu to the manager, Rizwan, and asks him to order for us.

“How spicy do you like it?” Rizwan asks.

“Not very spicy,” Khan answers for me. “He lives in north London! The article will be as good or bad as the food – so make it good!”

I ask Khan why he would make the best mayor, and suddenly it feels like I’m interviewing him for the job. “I went to a good local state school, had an affordable university education, one of my brothers had an apprenticeship, council accommodation. Today’s Londoners don’t have the same opportunities we had, and it breaks my heart. But being disappointed about it is not enough. I want to do something about it. And I’ve got the experience – I ran a successful business before becoming a politician, lawyer for more than 10 years, big jobs in government, I understand what makes London tick, I’ve got ideas whether it’s housing or helping businesses or reducing inequality or the living wage.” He’s talking faster and faster. “Also, I want to get things done. I’m not doing it because it’s just a reward for long service or because I couldn’t hack it in politics or in law. It’s because I’ve genuinely got something to offer.”

David suggests a picture of Khan tucking into a poppadom. He looks appalled. “Don’t even try that. Listen, it’s got to be proper food. Not a poppadom. There’s an urdu word, gora, which means white. So you guys are gora. The joke would be, ‘that’s gora food’.”

But back to pitching for mayor. “First of all, we need a candidate who’s going to win. So, I’m the only candidate who’s fought and won a marginal seat. On every occasion my share of the vote has gone up. I was in charge of the 2014 London elections; not only did we keep all 15 councils we won another five. We had the best ever European election results in 2014.”

Dish after dish arrives – fish massala, chicken methi, seekh kebab, lamb karahi – the smell is overpowering, the taste heavenly. But Khan doesn’t seem interested. David asks if he could stop talking for a second. Khan smiles at the waiters. “Well, he can make me look Clooneyesque or make me look like Ed eating a bacon sandwich, so I’ve got to be nice to him.” And then back to me. “The reason we won the most seats in the European election was because we did well in inner London and outer London, so I get the science and the art of winning elections. I’m a winner. So if we want a candidate who will win the election in May, I think that’s me.”

Are you not going to eat, I ask. No time, he says – a mayoral candidate’s work is never done. His assistant tells him they had better be on their way. I’m staring at all the dishes in front of me; Khan wraps a kebab in a serviette and prepares to head off. I ask him if it’s true he does standup comedy. Only at Labour party functions, he says. “At my last gig, I met Windsor Davies from It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. He said I was very funny. Arthur Smith says I’d be a very decent standup comic.” What’s his best joke?

“I went to hospital last week to meet the surgeons. I said: ‘What’s the easiest form of people to operate on? Surgeon One says: ‘The easiest form of people to operate on are accountants, because you slice them open and all their parts are numbered.’ Second surgeon goes: ‘No, actually you’re wrong, the easiest people to operate on are librarians because you cut them open and all their parts are in alphabetical order.’ Third surgeon goes: ‘No, you’re both wrong. The easiest people to operate on are politicians.’ I said: ‘Why?’ He goes: ‘Well, last week we had Jeremy Hunt in here and we sliced him open, and he was headless, heartless and gutless and his head and arse were interchangeable.’ Thank you. We’ve gotta go.”


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