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Remain voters look to London’s Sadiq Khan in wake of Brexit

© Yui Mok/POOL/AFP | Mayor of London Sadiq Khan addresses supporters of the “Britain Stronger In Europe” movement in west London on May 30.

Text by Bahar MAKOOI

Latest update : 2016-07-04

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan is enjoying a popularity boost in the wake of Britain’s referendum on leaving the EU. Seen as a unifying figure among a political class left fractured by the Brexit vote, Khan’s star is on the rise.

Politicians across the UK’s political spectrum – from conservative Boris Johnson to Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn – have been hurt in the political fallout of Britain’s decision to quit the EU. One person who has been exempt from the backlash is the new mayor of London, Sadiq Khan.

"An increasing number of Britons want to know more about Khan," Freddie Sayers, editor-in-chief of the London-based polling and research firm YouGov, told FRANCE 24 by telephone.

"He stands out as someone with a calm and positive message during a difficult time marked by a lot of hostility,” Sayers said of Khan, who is a member of the Labour Party, a Muslim, and a supporter of LGBT rights.

By way of example, Sayers cited a photograph shared by Khan on Twitter on June 27, only four days after Brexit results drove a painful wedge between the pro- and anti-Brexit camps in Britain. In the picture Khan appears alongside the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby; Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis; and around 30 London university students of diverse backgrounds. The group had gathered at Welby’s offices to break the Ramadan fast together.

This message of tolerance and multiculturalism did not go unnoticed in the UK in the wake of a “Leave” campaign that was accused of fuelling xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment, as well as widespread reports of a rise in xenophobic incidents following the ballot.

The ‘anti-Boris’

Sayers said the contrast between Khan and his predecessor, Boris Johnson, could hardly be starker.

The former Tory mayor grew up in an upper-middle-class English family. The son of Conservative politician Stanley Johnson, he attended Eton and Oxford University. The son of a Pakistani immigrant who worked as a bus driver, Khan has often cited the fact that he grew up in social housing.

“Sadiq Khan had always kept a low profile, but he is a great political figure in the making,” Sayers said. “When he was elected in May he was not widely known. His victory surprised everyone, including those in his own party.”

Since he took office, Khan has also laboured to break with Johnson’s image and legacy as mayor. Last week he announced that he would sell three water cannon Johnson purchased for the London police and use the funds for “youth activities”.

Making the announcement during his first State of London debate on June 30, Khan used the opportunity to throw a few additional jabs at Johnson, who has been on the defensive ever since he announced he was pulling out of the race to become prime minister.

Even members of Johnson’s own Conservative Party have lambasted the politician for throwing in the towel after leading the “Leave” campaign. Former deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine likened Johnson to “a general who led his army to the sound of the gun, and leaves the field after the field is in sight”, adding: “I’ve never seen so contemptible and irresponsible a situation.”

London pins hopes on Khan

The most memorable example of acrimony between the former and current London mayors nevertheless remains the EU referendum debate, which took place in a packed Wembley Stadium on June 21.

Sayers thinks the televised debate marked a turning point in Khan’s career. “Only six politicians were invited, three from each camp. Sadiq Khan went head-to-head against Boris Johnson and came out with flying colours,” he said.

It is no wonder then that Londoners, who voted overwhelmingly to stay in the European Union, have turned to Khan in their post-ballot despair. At least 178,000 people have signed an online petition urging the mayor to, “Declare London independent from the UK and apply to join the EU”.

Khan has not suggested that he would act on the petition to declare London independent, but has said that it was "crucial that London has a voice at the table” during future negotiations on Britain leaving the EU.

He also co-penned a letter with Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo in which the pair pledged to make the two capitals “work closer than ever” despite the Brexit results, stealing headlines around the planet.

So with his popularity soaring at home and abroad, could Khan be ready to lead the struggling Labour Party amid rumours of an upcoming leadership contest?

Sayers said that while Khan’s momentum is unquestionable and his influence in British politics likely to spread, the timing is off for such a move.

Khan has only just taken the reins in London for a four-year term. The next general election in the UK is not scheduled before May 2020.

Date created : 2016-07-02

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