Most people seem to have missed the biggest political story of the last couple of days: that Sadiq Khan has given up any ambition to become prime minister. Of course, this is more implicit than explicit, but his actions and words can hardly be mistaken for anything other than a renunciation of what most of us assumed was his former determination to “do a Boris”.
Khan, like Boris Johnson, is one of his generation’s most ambitious politicians. If he genuinely never intended to use City Hall as a stepping stone to the leadership of his own party and then to Downing Street, then I am happy to stand corrected and to apologise for this grave calumny against him. Indeed, I may have been wrong all along, because let’s face it, which politician with a feel for the mood of the nation would imagine that what the country needs at this time of crisis is more recreational drug use?
As the capital’s mayor, Khan has set up a commission to examine the effectiveness of current drug laws, particularly those concerning the use of cannabis. As part of this initiative, he’s swanned off on a jolly (sorry, I mean he’s embarked on a fact-finding mission) to California where cannabis use has been legal since 2018. Many will quite reasonably be left asking what the nation's drug policy has to do with him at all.
The initiative is doubtless popular in parts of London, but London is not the UK. Anyone with ambitions one day to lead his party would surely be careful not to alienate large parts of the electorate which already see London’s culture and priorities as having little relevance to them. Labour seems to understand this: Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, was hardly fulsome in her response to the commission. As an MP with a seat in the north of England, Cooper undoubtedly has a better feel than Khan does for how this sort of thing will go down in socially conservative working class communities.
Khan’s ambition was once in the driving seat of his career. Hardly a natural Jeremy Corbyn supporter, for example, he was so determined to secure the support of London Labour members for the mayoral nomination in 2015 that he actually nominated the Islington MP as Labour leader (mind you, so did all but one of his rivals) in order to prove his Left-wing street cred, then wisely spent the next four years making it clear he knew he’d made a mistake. I would suggest he knew before he signed Corbyn’s leadership nomination paper that he was making a mistake.
But given that he has literally no power or authority to change primary legislation, we can only conclude that this commission is being set up for publicity purposes only. Those who approve of cannabis decriminalisation will approve of it, those who disapprove of decriminalisation will disapprove of it, and life will go on pretty much as at present until a government, at some point down the line, chooses to change policy.
In the meantime, the only thing Khan can achieve is a contribution to a “debate” – oh, and the distinct possibility that he has just given Conservative politicians something with which to attack the Labour Party. Even if Keir Starmer and his shadow cabinet distance themselves from the mayor, Khan undoubtedly speaks for at least a section of the party.
The actual issue of cannabis decriminalisation, or even legalisation, is more complex than most partisans on either side of the debate will concede. The emergence of a legal industry in California in the last three years has done very little to fulfil the promise that it would undermine or even destroy the black market in the drug, and there is evidence that it has even prospered as a consequence of Californians’ famed liberal tolerance. At the same time there may be advantages to the criminal justice system and to those communities most often subject to cannabis law enforcement if laws were to be relaxed.
No doubt all the contradictory evidence will be taken into account by the commission, which is to be chaired by Lord Falconer, Tony Blair’s former lord chancellor and justice secretary. But hopes that the final report will be a nuanced, measured and balanced assessment of the consequences of liberalisation have been somewhat dashed by photographs of a smiling mayor standing in the midst of marijuana plants in Los Angeles, looking very comfortable indeed.
Two contradictory conclusions can be drawn from Khan’s actions. Either he retains his ambition to be prime minister and hopes that this initiative will boost his popularity among young people and minority communities. Or he has indeed decided that his principled support for reform in this area is more important than his personal ambitions. If the latter is true, then he should be commended.
If the former is the case, we may have to wait another generation before a mayor of London duplicates the example of Boris Johnson, and makes the successful transition from City Hall to Downing Street.