Will Sadiq Khan be the next Labour leader?

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Will Sadiq Khan be the next Labour leader?

Peter Bingle discusses the political implications of the London Mayor’s decision to publicly back Owen Smith in the Labour leadership campaign.

In coming out and publicly backing Owen Smith in the Labour leadership campaign, Sadiq Khan has rolled the dice and taken the greatest political risk of his life. In the short term, he will discover just how nasty certain elements of his own party really are. In the longer term, he will either become Labour Leader or a political loser, an ambitious politician who called it wrong and was never forgiven by his own party. The stakes could not be higher for the bus driver’s son…

Khan and Corbyn’s political fortunes have been intertwined ever since Khan decided to nominate him for the Labour leadership in the aftermath of Ed Miliband’s resignation post the Tory’s surprise victory in last year’s general election. His rationale was interesting. He wasn’t going to vote for Corbyn but believed that he represented a strand of political thinking which deserved a voice. Perhaps in the back of his mind was a different reason. He wanted the support of the Hard Left and to mobilise their activists in the forthcoming battle to become Labour’s London mayoral candidate.

Too cynical? It is always worth remembering when analysing Sadiq Khan that he a ruthlessly calculating machine politician who does nothing by chance. In a party that seems to enjoy wallowing in its own incompetence Khan brings together a concatenation of ambition, self-belief and organisational brilliance. He is a shining star in a very dull galaxy. Khan therefore came out and backed Owen Smith because he and his inner circle at City Hall believed it was in his best political interests to do so.

The fact that the Labour Party is in trouble is incontrovertible. So too is the likelihood of Corbyn being re-elected ‪on 24th September. Owen Smith has no personality, no political profile and makes Diane Abbott look like a world statesman. The idea that he is his party’s saviour is laughable. This is after all a man who believes that Islamic State should be invited to roundtable peace talks!

Khan knows that Smith cannot win yet, so why has he publicly backed him? Let me rehearse some of the possible reasons:

The first reason is very simple. It simply wasn’t feasible for the Mayor of London to stand on the side-lines and have no opinion on who should be Labour Leader as his very uncomfortable Today Programme interview showed. On this basis backing Smith was the least bad option.

The second reason looks ahead to what is likely to happen post a second Corbyn victory. There will be a schism between the Labour Leadership and his devoted followers and the Parliamentary Labour Party. Rather like the civil war between White Russians and the Bolsheviks this isn’t going to be very nice! It will be bloody and vicious. Khan again cannot stand on the side-lines and do nothing.

The third reason looks slightly further ahead. On the basis that the Labour Party implodes the London council elections in May 2018 are going to be a bloodbath. The resurgent Tories are well placed to win back a raft of marginal and not so marginal Labour held London councils. If that happens, Khan’s political base will be severely undermined. He can’t allow himself to become a political prisoner in City Hall, a Labour Mayor without an effective political party and totally dependent on the support of his political opponents.

The fourth reason is perhaps the most likely. In the chaos and gloom that has now descended on the Labour Party there is a need for a saviour, a politician who is untainted by the mess and who can come forward and selflessly save his party and take it forward to electoral nirvana. Khan cannot be tainted by the Blairite slur. He was after all campaign manager for the hapless Ed Miliband. Khan also played no part in the well-organised and perfectly timed coup. By then he was already ensconced in the relative safety of City Hall. Is he that saviour?

If I am right Khan’s decision to come out and publicly back a political loser can be explained very simply by his ambition and self-belief that he is the man who destiny has determined can save his party…

What is fascinating is that for the first time Khan is now going to be a divisive figure rather than a much lauded London Mayor who poses for selfies wherever his goes. It also puts at risk his public persona as a Mayor who puts his love of Londoners and the business community above the interests of his own party. Make no mistake. There are now a very large number of Labour Party members (many of them in London) who regard Khan as a traitor, a man who used Corbyn’s power base to win a famous victory and who then cruelly turned on the Labour Leader. Et tu Sadiq?

Khan is a skilled politician and will have factored all of this into his calculations. The problem he faces, however, is that his future plans rely on Labour MPs and Corbyn opponents developing testicles and a backbone, two body parts which have thus far been visibly lacking. Without this support, Khan is going to become a very lonely and very vulnerable political figure and a one-term Mayor. If he pulls it off Sadiq Khan will be Leader of the post Jeremy Corbyn Labour Party. How will the dice roll?

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  • Peter Bingle
    Peter Bingle
    Peter is the Founder of Terrapin Communications. With a career in politics and communications that has spanned almost four decades, he is one of the country's leading public affairs practitioners. His career has seen him advise many top companies, including McDonald’s, HSBC, L’Oreal, Permira, Motorola, Camelot, Rolls Royce & Kellogg's.
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