Sadiq Khan’s grasp of the majority mood in the capital has only rarely looked less than assured and his stance on Brexit demonstrates extremely well that he knows which side his electoral bread is buttered. His arrival in the House of Commons public gallery last night as MPs prepared to sink Theresa May’s EU withdrawal deal to the bottom of the Thames sent a message as loud and clear as his cute appropriation of the New Year’s fireworks display for his London Is Open campaign. In a 60 per cent Remain city, this is a 100 per cent Remain Mayor.
Later, he was on the telly articulating his line, also punched out in an evening press release, that the Prime Minister should do what is required to rule out a “no deal” exit, that a big rethink should take place, and that “in the absence of a general election, the British public must be allowed to decide what happens next”. His view was perfectly aligned with that of Jasmine Whitbread, chief executive of business organisation London First, and his plea on “no deal’ was also made in a letter to the PM, co-signed by the mayors of Greater Manchester and the Liverpool City Region and the leader of Newcastle City Council.
By contrast, as I write Shaun Bailey, his Brexit-backing Conservative challenger for the mayoralty, has mustered not even a tweet about last night’s extraordinary parliamentary events. Of course, unlike the City Hall incumbent, Bailey could not have hoped to get a share of last night’s Brexit drama limelight, but at some stage his campaign will surely need to embrace this momentous national issue, which matters massively to London and to many Londoners. London Mayors cannot make or unmake Brexit national policy, but it is part of their job to make their view about it known. The same goes for mayoral candidates.
The time will come when Bailey will be asked to articulate his position in detail. In September, the Evening Standard, whose anti-Brexit position has not stopped it from running a string of puff pieces in support of Bailey, reported him saying he is “not a Brexiteer in that crazy sense of ‘let’s just leave'” and promising he will be “talking to Londoners about how we get the best deal,” but little else has been heard from him lately.
That needs to change, not least because London’s Leavers matter. They might be very much in the minority but they are a hefty one, comprising more than 1.5 million voters in 2016. Tory jibes that more Londoners voted Leave than voted for Khan earlier in the same year are questionable – it all depends on how you define “voted for” – but however you look at it, that is a lot of Londoners. And speaking up for them is not only a job for the Brexiter Tory hopeful. It is a job, or ought to be, for Mayor Khan too, especially as the heat is very far from going out of the Brexit debate.
London’s preference for Remain is a reflection and confirmation of the city’s branding and its baked-in self image as an international, outward-looking global metropolis. But the rise of this triumphant, culturally kaleidoscopic London – the London of the 2012 Olympics – is nonetheless felt by some Londoners as a loss, and eurosceptic Londoners aren’t confined to older white people in Hillingdon and Romford. Worries about immigration, the pace and character of change, and erosion of cultural identity are expressed by Londoners of many colours and heritages.
These Londoners’ voices should be more widely heard and their concerns acknowledged. That does not mean accommodating the poison put about by UKIP, a party which, in any case, a massive 67 per cent of Londoners would never, ever vote for, according to the recent YouGov poll for Queen Mary University. What it does mean is recognising that London’s proud and dazzling embrace of immigration and diversity does not necessarily delight all Londoners and that ignoring their disquiet risks undermining the remarkable degree of unity this city of 300 languages enjoys.
It is in the interests of both Bailey and Khan to do this: the former, because speaking clearly and constructively for London’s Leavers will surely help him secure their votes in 2020; the latter, because his mayoral standing could only be enhanced by it without diluting his Remain credentials or ability to represent the majority view. And if there is to be a second referendum or “peoples’ vote”, any victory for Remain would need to be a big one if the EU issue is to be resolved. The Mayor’s championing of Remain is both justifiable and politically shrewd, but he would be wise to also reassure London’s Leavers that they count for something too.