On Monday I watched the news on television. That isn't something I always do. Normally I pick up what's been going on from all sorts of different sources: the press, websites, the car radio, chatter in the pub; it varies from day to day. Anyway Monday was television's turn and what I saw was quite illuminating. The news item concerned the referendum campaign with shots of the Remain battlebus. There was Mr Cameron and, as you might expect with a cross-party campaign, there was a prominent Labour politician alongside him. It wasn't Mr Corbyn of course. He is in his tent paying lip-service to the campaign without actually mixing with those leading it. Nor was it one of his pet apparatchiks: presumably they sit snarling alongside him and would not pollute themselves by working with those of different views.
Who was it then? Some senior shadow minister from the centre? No, they are too busy worrying about whether they will be deselected. Some figure from Labour's Blairite past? No, again. They are yesterday's men in political terms. Actually, it wasn't an MP at all, or at least not any more. It was Sadiq Khan, the newly elected Mayor of London, clearly comfortable appearing with the Prime Minister, unfazed by the abuse cast at him in the mayoral campaign, rising above domestic politics to support the national interest: a Big Tent man, a man with broad vision, a man representing the type of social democracy which goes down well with the public. For a moment I forgot that he was only Mayor of London and saw him instead as the sort of politician with whom the country could be at ease should he ever exercise a different sort of power.
The more you think about Mr Khan, the more you realise how extraordinarily well he is placed. Currently, moderate Labour MPs have a stark choice. They can, like the Vicar of Bray in the song, trim their views to those of the current leadership. No doubt that will preserve them from deselection and it may earn a shadow Cabinet post too. The trouble is that if the public rejects the hard left at the next election, those who have associated with them may join them as the victims of a giant flush of the political loo. That cannot be a very enticing prospect. Alternatively they can try their luck on the high wire by openly maintaining centrist views in a party which is becoming increasingly hostile to them. That is a hard world, a place of knives in the dark and secret cabals, of entryism in constituency parties, of glasses of wine being passed "across the water" before they are drunk. Entertaining, of course, if you have the skills of Machiavelli, but these are hard to pick up if your only experience prior to election was doing research for another constituency MP.
Khan, though, sits outside all this. He does not have to decide whether to follow the Labour whips. No one is going to ask him to sign the papers to bring about a leadership challenge. He can simply devote his energies to the interests of the people of London. In their name he can develop his own brand of social democracy. In their name he can reach out to those of all political views and none. And all the time, although his audience will be anchored by his position in London, he will have the opportunity to spread his reputation throughout the land.
It is certainly not a bad place to be and the more the two main parties tear themselves apart, the better it becomes. With the Labour Party it is obvious. Mr Corbyn seems to be locked firmly in place by the left wing membership and it now seems very unlikely that he will be removed before the next election. If the public comprehensively reject him at that stage, his party will need someone who takes a different approach. Step forward Mr Khan. But it doesn't stop there. Who knows who will be leading the Conservatives in four years' time? Osborne's star seems to be waning, Boris makes people nervous and it is quite possible that the party will move to the right. If it does, the liberal wing of the party will find itself increasingly uncomfortable, so again there could be votes for a man of the centre, a one nation social democrat politician.
It isn't just political positioning which indicates leadership potential. The biggest challenges in politics are practical ones and to succeed you need to be seen as a good decision maker. Mr Khan will have the opportunity to demonstrate his qualities in a very public forum over the next four years. More important than this, though, is the quality of confidence. Mr Cameron has it in spades and it is one of the things which underpins his popularity with the electors. Watch Mr Khan carefully and you will see something of the same. He brushes aside the mud thrown in the mayoral elections because other things are more important. He wrong-foots the Labour leadership by appearing with Mr Cameron, thus representing his party at the top table. He makes it clear that he wants a constructive relationship with the government at the time when the instincts of Labour HQ are to run the other way.
If you were cynical you might put this down to a careful choice of a political posture, but you would probably be wrong. The truth seems to be that Mr Khan's relaxed and constructive political attitude reflects the way he thinks. If so, it is likely to go down very well with the public as the political infighting in both of the main parties develops.
The seas of politics are stormy and any boat, however well positioned, may find itself sunk by unexpected squalls. Nonetheless, if you are passing a bookie in the next day or two and fancy a flutter on the identity of the next Labour Prime Minister, Sadiq Khan is a name you should keep in mind.
Published in the Shaw SheetSuggest a correction