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Why Sadiq Khan, the man Donald Trump dubbed a ‘stone cold loser’, was able to make history in London

Northeastern academics look at how Sadiq Khan was able to secure a historic third term as mayor of London and what the local election results mean for the U.K.’s future

Headshot of Sadiq Khan.
Sadiq Khan made history as the first person to be elected for a third-term as London mayor (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

LONDON — Donald Trump branded London Mayor Sadiq Khan a “stone cold loser” during their international war of words.

Not for the first time, an accusation made by the former U.S. president has not survived contact with reality. 

Khan has won two more mayoral elections since Trump made the comment in 2019, with his latest victory this month making history, becoming the first politician to be elected for a third term since the City Hall post was established in 2000.

With local elections held across England on May 2, Khan had been predicted to secure reelection with ease, despite frustration among some motorists over his expansion of London’s ultra-low emission zone, with those driving the most polluting vehicles in the city having to pay £12.50 ($15.60) per day.

The backlash did not cost him in the end as he secured close to 44% of the vote share, trouncing his nearest rival, Susan Hall of the Conservative Party, by 11 points.

One door he knocked on while canvassing for votes was that of Pablo Calderon Martinez, a Northeastern University associate professor in politics and international relations, who lives in the same neighborhood as Khan.

The Calderon Martinez family discussed local election issues on the doorstep with the mayoral incumbent before quizzing Khan, a Muslim whose father came to England from Pakistan in the 1960s, on his favorite curry house in Tooting, an area in south London famed for its South East Asian restaurants.

Calderon Martinez says Khan’s spat with Trump “played very well” for the left-wing mayor.

The feud between the pair kicked off in 2015 when they were both gearing up for election campaigns.

In 2015, Khan labeled Trump’s presidential campaign pledge to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. as “outrageous” and told the BBC he hoped the Republican “loses badly” against Hillary Clinton.

When Trump came to Britain in 2018, Khan gave permission for protesters to fly a protest blimp depicting Trump as a crying baby in a diaper and, just ahead of the billionaire’s state visit a year later, he compared the language used by the president to that of “the fascists in the 20th century.”

Trump was not shy in responding. In June 2019, just before landing in the U.K. for meetings with Queen Elizabeth II and others, Trump described Khan as “a stone cold loser who should focus on crime in London, not me.”

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For Calderon Martinez, the row with Trump only served to elevate Khan’s profile and push his narrative of London being a “global city” that is liberal and welcoming.

With Trump vying for the presidency again as the presumptive Republican nominee to take on Democratic incumbent Joe Biden, there is a chance the two could be squaring off again.

“I think Khan to some extent would welcome the opportunity to go head to head with Trump again because there is no problem for him,” Calderon Martinez says. “It puts his name out there, it is good publicity.”

In fact, Calderon Martinez speculates that Khan might have the best international name recognition of anyone in the Labour Party, including leader Sir Keir Starmer, who the polls predict is on course to become Britain’s next prime minister after this year’s general election.

He says Khan’s profile in the party and the strong likelihood of Labour returning to power at a national level for the first time in 14 years could open up the possibility of a return to Westminster politics and government.

Khan was elected to Parliament in 2005 and gained ministerial experience before later quitting in 2016 to run for London mayor.

Such a career path has already been trodden by a former prime minister. Following a maligned career as an MP, Boris Johnson reinvented his image during two terms as Conservative Party mayor of London before choosing to return to Parliament in 2015, laying the path for him to campaign for Brexit and eventually enter Downing Street.

Calderon Martinez says: “I would not put it past Khan to run for a safe seat in London and go for one of the big offices of state in a Labour government.

“It would be a win-win. He has already secured his place in history, as it were, with the third term as mayor of London. He did that relatively comfortably.

“He is a very good politician in a nation where we don’t really have that many good politicians.”

The local elections made for grim reading for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his Conservative Party. 

As well as the heavy defeat in London, the Tories also lost in a host of other key regional mayoral battles and close to 500 local council seats were wiped out. Pollsters say the results suggest, should similar results be borne out at a general election, the Tory vote share would shrink to 26% — down from 43% at the last U.K.-wide poll in 2019.

Josephine Harmon, an assistant professor in political science at Northeastern, says the results were close to being a “rubber stamp” on Starmer taking the keys to No. 10 Downing Street.

She said fears in the opposition party camp that its position on the Israel-Hamas war could hurt Labour at the ballot box— Starmer was perceived to have backed a blockade on water and food entering Gaza in the opening weeks of the conflict and critics accused the leadership of being slow to call for a ceasefire — “didn’t translate into votes cast”.

“It suggests there might well be a very good turnout for Labour in the general election,” says the London-based academic.

Under electoral law, a U.K. general election has to be held roughly five years after the last national poll, meaning the final cut-off date for the next contest is Jan. 28, 2025.

But it is up to the prime minister to decide when exactly it will be within that time frame.

Harmon says the Conservative “wipeout” at the local elections has left Sunak, who on Wednesday saw a second Tory MP switch allegiances to Labour in as many weeks, “between a rock and hard place” when it comes to naming a date for the election.

“The prognosis isn’t good, whichever way you come to it. I think they [the Tories] probably know they are likely facing a pretty comprehensive defeat,” she says.

“Sunak is stuck between a series of bad options, and so the least bad option is to wait and see if he can… not exactly turn things around, but if he can limit the damage.

“I think there are incentives for him now to push the general election as far away as possible, within the realms of what is legal. To me, it suggests a November election — I wouldn’t even rule out a December election.”

Those activists who knocked on doors wrapped up in hats, scarves and gloves ahead of the December 2019 general election will be hoping Sunak spares them the bleakness of another winter campaign.

But the memory of the decisive victory Johnson — the liberal London mayor turned pro-Brexit prime minister — secured in that election five years ago may just be enough to spur on the chilly Tory campaigners as they petition for a Christmas miracle and pray the polls make a gargantuan shift in their party’s favor.