Sadiq Khan cuts out the Latin and 'banter' in first Mayor's Question Time

New London mayor marks a shift from the raucous and ill-tempered sessions under Boris Johnson
New London mayor marks a shift from the raucous and ill-tempered sessions under Boris Johnson
Adam Bienkov By

The first monthly question time for the new mayor of London was a novel experience after eight years of Boris Johnson. Over the course of two and a half hours, Sadiq Khan politely answered queries on everything from affordable housing to public transport fares. At no point did he attempt to shout down members of the London Assembly or call them names. When members of the opposition made points he disagreed with, he didn't shout "blah, blah, fishcakes" at them, or mutter an insult in Latin under his breath. AMs were not told that their opinion was "boll***s" or compared to the Taliban. It was, all in all, rather refreshing.

The session began with Khan entering to the sound of applause from the Assembly. He then went around the chamber carefully shaking the hands of the 25 newly elected members. Arbour, who is a Conservative AM, welcomed him with a speech lamenting the approach taken by Khan's predecessor: "Mayor's question time is not public entertainment as it had become during the last days of the last administration," he told him. Boris may have been popular with Londoners, but he was not always so popular among Tories on the London Assembly. "We are discussing serous business here and we need to ensure that we are taken seriously," he added witheringly. 

Khan replied that he would keep "banter" to a minimum. He wasn't lying. Unlike Boris who always referred to AMs by their first names, Khan referred to them all as "Assembly member Pidgeon" and "Assembly member Whittle" and so on. In his opening speech, he promised earnestly to work alongside all parties on the Assembly and later accepted several specific requests by Tory AMs to do so. His approach was all very honourable, but it is unlikely to have caught the imagination of many Londoners. As Arbour commented at the end of the session, while civility might be welcome, it can also be rather dull.


The public gallery at London's City Hall

Not that many Londoners will have seen today's session of course. City Hall had hoped for a big turnout for Khan's first outing in the chamber. For the first time I can remember, visitors were handed raffle tickets at the entrance to the building in an apparent attempt to prevent legions of Londoners fighting to get in at the last minute. In the event the chamber was at best half-full and gradually thinned out as proceedings went on. If there has been a rush of excitement among Londoners about the arrival of their new mayor, it wasn't in evidence today. Londoner's long-standing indifference to the work of their elected mayor and Assembly, appears to have survived eight years of Boris and looks set to continue under Mayor Khan as well.

There were a few points of controversy. Two Labour AMs voiced their opposition to Khan's continued support for the Garden Bridge. I've never fully understood the level of controversy surrounding this project. Of all the costly vanity projects started under Johnson, it seems odd that the decision to provide limited public subsidy for a glorified footbridge across the Thames, should be the one that has produced the most anger. Khan today insisted that so much had already been spent on the project by TfL, that it would be more costly to cancel the project than to complete it and get back the £20 million loaned by Boris. Whatever the truth of that claim, the amount of funding TfL will end up spending on the project is relatively low – less than half of the cost of installing just one set of lifts in some existing Tube stations.  When you consider it was revealed last year that TfL wasted almost £900 million due to a botched Tube contract with Bombardier, it's hard to get too outraged about £18 million being spent on making it slightly quicker to walk from Temple to the Southbank.

The anger is even harder to understand when you consider that Khan also appears to be moving towards supporting a much more expensive and damaging crossing further down river. The Silvertown Tunnel is a planned road-building project between the Greenwich Peninsula and East London. If built, it would attract even more traffic and pollution into what is already one of the most polluted and public-transport deprived parts of London. If Khan does back the project in some form, as he indicated today, it would make a mockery of his claim to become "the greenest mayor ever" let alone his commitment to tackle London's already illegal levels of air pollution. But for whatever reason, this project has never attracted anywhere near the same amount of controversy as the plan to put a few trees on a bridge near St Paul's Cathedral.

Conservative Assembly Members questioning Khan

There was also some disagreement over Khan's house-building plans. The Tories tried to get Khan to repeat a suggestion made on his campaign website, that he would build at least 80,000 homes a year. The statement which Tory AM Andrew Boff referred to appears to have been deliberately ambiguous and was not repeated in his manifesto. Khan today refused to make any new commitment on numbers, insisting as he did during the campaign, that he was more concerned about the quality of new housing than the quantity. This is dangerous ground for Khan however. Whatever the precise wording of his housing pledges, he very definitely gave the impression that he would radically increase housing supply if he was elected. Simply attacking his predecessor for "leaving the cupboard bare" on housing as he did today isn't enough. Londoners will expect to see action from Khan on housing and see it quickly – whatever the state of City Hall's cupboards.

These are still very early days however and overall this was a solid start from the new mayor. After eight years of bluster and inaction from his predecessor, Khan's courteous and considered approach to answering questions was welcomed by all sides of the Assembly.  Even by some of those whose job it will be to try to boot him out of office in four years time.

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