The border between dazzling perception and base speculation can be blurred. I could be reading too much into yesterday’s Mayor’s Question Time (MQT) exchange between Sadiq Khan and Conservative London Assembly member Shaun Bailey over boroughs forming joint venture (JV) companies with property firms. But let’s plunge in to the mist anyway.
Pointing out to Khan that his draft London Plan signals sympathy for JVs as a means of delivering more housing and much else, Bailey invited him to confirm that this is his view. Khan’s response – already familiar to readers of On London – was that JVs are an option that might be productively taken by boroughs given national government’s disinclination to further increase funding for housing and its refusal to allow councils more freedom to borrow to build. And, after all, Transport for London, with Khan’s blessing, is in the JV business too.
What about the one in Haringey, Bailey inquired? Khan repeated that he couldn’t comment on particular cases because they might come before him in the future for planning consent. “Will you support the [Haringey] council leader, then, in her pursuit of this goal?” Bailey persisted. After all, he innocently reasoned, doing so would give “a clear signal” to all boroughs taking that path that he, as Mayor, is sympathetic.
The chair intervened and Bailey came back with a final, simpler question: “Will you be supporting JVs across London?” Khan said: “Horses for courses.” Then he added: “What I will say, and it’s very important in the context of Haringey, and all across London, is ‘vote Labour'” To which Bailey quipped: “Which Labour?”
That last remark was perhaps the most revealing part of the whole exchange. Bailey will have been well aware that opposition to Haringey’s proposed joint venture, the Haringey Development Vehicle (HDV), has been the mobilising force with which Haringey Momentum and its non-Labour allies have ousted enough sitting councillors to all but guarantee a different kind of Labour administration in Haringey after May’s borough elections, one very much in the image of Jeremy Corbyn.
He would surely have known too that had Khan sided publicly with Haringey’s leader, Claire Kober, he would have strengthened the view among London Corbynites that the Mayor is not One Of Us. That is something the Labour mayor could do without.
Momentum hasn’t made much ground in council candidate selection votes outside of Haringey, but they have won control of many ward branch and constituency organisations. Before long, London Labour MPs will be seeking re-selection. There is a suspicion abroad – not least in a certain part of North London – that some parliamentary incumbents are effectively imprisoned by Momentum-ite officers and members, such is the pressure they are under to make the sorts of noises required if they are to avoid a potentially politically fatal challenge from the Left.
And Khan too will need to emerge victorious from a mayoral “trigger ballot” in due course. Much has changed since his famous “power” conference speech in 2016 and the surreally inflated effect of Corbyn’s smaller than expected defeat at the general election has seen several former critics of the leader change their tone. Khan’s pre-borough elections rallying cry for Labour List makes the point rather well.
As for Shaun Bailey, well, he didn’t get all he’d have liked from Khan’s replies to his MQT question, but I doubt he expected to. Khan would have seen him coming and the combination of his dead bat on JVs and playing of the party loyalty card – especially “in the context of Haringey” – formed a typically savvy defence. Even so, Bailey’s probings effectively revealed how Khan’s scope for publicly siding with “moderate” Labour leaders like Kober, who he respects, has been constrained, along with the disappearance of his former interest in making barely-coded criticisms of Corbyn, for fear of riling We Who Believe In Him.
No doubt Bailey will have further opportunities to try flushing Khan out as the borough elections near. And, who knows, maybe these will extend into a wider forum later. More than one grapevine murmur has it that Bailey could become the Tories’ mayoral candidate for 2020.
Watch the Bailey-Khan JV exchange from 57:30 mins here.