The Sajid and Sadiq show: UK’s two most influential British Asian politicians are on the path to greater power. When Sajid Javid was appointed Home Secretary yesterday, Sadiq Khan was the first to congratulate him — now their friendship could turn to political rivalry.
He’s really impressive. Who is he?” said my non-political partner after watching Sajid Javid, the new Home Secretary, at the Despatch Box yesterday. I explained that only six hours before, he had been appointed to a job that had seen his friend Amber Rudd fall on her sword the previous evening. “Well, if he can do that after only a few hours, do you think he could be prime minister?” came the retort. And that’s the question on everyone’s lips in Westminster.
The first to congratulate Javid on his appointment was the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. He tweeted: “I hope we can work together to tackle the tough challenges we face — from making sure our police have the resources they need, urgently dealing with the Windrush scandal, and putting an end to the ‘hostile environment’ for migrants.” Two years earlier it was Javid who was one of the first to congratulate Sadiq on his election as mayor, tweeting: “From one son of a Pakistani bus driver to another, congratulations.”
The two most powerful and influential British Asian politicians are now on the path to greater power. They are both seen as party leader material, and potential prime ministers. There are a lot of “ifs” to get through before that even becomes a possibility, but there is little doubt that both politicians have their eye on the top job. Get ready for the Sadiq & Saj show. It’s the new double act in British politics.
On the surface, Khan and Javid have much in common. Their respective parents came here from Pakistan in the Sixties, they share a religious background and they’ve made it good from humble beginnings. They’ve fulfilled the dreams that their parents must have had for them when they made the decision to emigrate, but there the similarities end.
Their politics and personalities couldn’t be more different. Khan wears his heart on his sleeve, can be emotional and, on occasion, touchy-feely. Javid, on the other hand, is more formal and, some say, robotic. Cool, calm and collected, he finds public displays of emotion come less easily to him. One Tory MP said to me: “Look in his eyes, and there’s nothing there.” Unkind, perhaps, but a weakness for any politician in a world where emoting in public is expected. Khan can take selfies with the best of them while, with Javid, what you see is what you get.
Politically, they are chalk and cheese. Javid is a proud Thatcherite and doesn’t care who knows it. An expensive portrait of her hangs in his ministerial office. He rose quickly up the ministerial ranks, starting as PPS to the Chancellor only 18 months after being elected to the Commons in 2010.
The Chancellor was impressed and Javid then spent two years as a Treasury Minister before David Cameron promoted him to the Cabinet in April 2014 as Culture Secretary. It was a stratospheric rise, but he was a square peg in a round hole. A year later he was promoted to the Business Department and seemed set for great things.
And then Brexit happened. To the consternation of everyone who knew him, Javid came out for Remain despite having been viewed as one of the leading Eurosceptics in the Cabinet. He justified it by declaring his loyalty to Cameron, saying he was worried about the effect of Brexit on British business.
Rather like Theresa May, he didn’t play a huge part in the referendum campaign. With David Cameron gone and the Brexiteers in the ascendancy, Javid disappeared from the lists of future leadership contenders. In a bizarre alliance, he threw in his lot with Stephen Crabb in a brief leadership campaign that fizzled out as quickly as it had been glued together.
If Javid’s rise was meteoric, Khan’s was anything but. Elected in 2005, he had to wait more than three years to be made a minister. He was a young man in a hurry, and only a few months after being elected he was knocking on the door of the Labour chief whip, Jacqui Smith, asking brazenly why he hadn’t been made a minister.
In 2008 he started his rise up the ranks, which culminated in attending the Cabinet as Minister of State for Transport. He became the first Muslim to sit round the Cabinet table.
Unlike Javid, Khan is hard to pigeonhole politically. He does not suffer from ideological certainty and is known for being politically rather flexible. His flip-flopping on supporting (or not) a third runway at Heathrow has become the stuff of legend. But he also has a talent to sniff which way the political wind is blowing. He was the first to spot Ed Miliband’s potential to become Labour leader in 2010 and ended up running his campaign. His political acuity also led him to run for the Labour nomination to be London mayor, seeing off Tessa Jowell and David Lammy in the process, in a contest which became increasingly bitter.
I remember hosting a hustings on LBC in which Khan and Lammy spent the whole time trading insulting barbs. It was further evidence of Khan’s streetfighting abilities.
Both men have love-hate relationships with their leaders. Khan hugs Jeremy Corbyn close when he needs to — controversially nominating him as leader — but generally keeps him at a respectful distance. He knows, however, that if he is ever to lead the Labour Party he will need the support of the Corbynistas, so from time to time will say something designed to keep them on side.
Javid ended up supporting May’s leadership campaign, yet has had a very cool relationship with her since. She demoted him to Communities Secretary and he never really forgave her. Indeed, her supporters accused him of plotting to overthrow her. He narrowly escaped being sacked from the Cabinet in the post-2017 reshuffle after clashing with the Prime Minister in Cabinet. Had May got the majority she expected, there’s little doubt Javid would now be on the backbenches. On such vagaries are political careers saved.
And then came Grenfell. Khan became the voice of London, ever-present on the scene, empathising, hugging, doing interview after interview all the while knowing he didn’t really have many powers to actually do anything. By contrast, Javid stayed in the background, coordinating everything from his ministerial office. He drew a lot of criticism for not being at the forefront of the rescue efforts. In fact he was, but people didn’t see it for themselves. Perception is almost as important as reality in these matters, and while a Cabinet Minister naturally needs to concentrate on managing a crisis, Javid needed to be front and centre of informing people via the media about what he was actually doing to handle the crisis.
There’s no doubt about Javid’s competence and talents. He may be an instinctive Conservative, but he also has some ideological grounding. He’s more likely to be found reading the Russian-American novelist Ayn Rand than Doris Lessing. He’s being painted as a centrist, when nothing could be farther from the truth. Yes, he’s got liberal views on same-sex marriage and abortion, but in economic terms he’s a dry-as-dust Thatcherite.
As Home Secretary, he will be judged on crime and immigration. His brother is a Chief Superintendent in the West Midlands, and it will be interesting to see if he adopts a rather more friendly approach to the police than his two immediate predecessors have. Khan laid down a challenge to the new Home Secretary in his congratulatory tweet and it is already evident that he will be striking a very different tone on immigration. The test will be whether he has the courage and political will to force the Prime Minister to abandon her ridiculous and unachievable pledge to reduce immigration to the tens of thousands and to take students out of the immigration figures altogether.
Javid and Khan have the potential to be the new Ted Heath and Harold Wilson of British politics, but with a difference. Javid and Khan don’t just respect each other; they actually like each other.
This article first appeared in the Evening Standard on 1 May 2018