The biggest election of the year — the battle for London mayor — erupted in personal rancour last night as Labour’s candidate, Sadiq Khan, accused his Tory rival, Zac Goldsmith, of being a “serial and habitual underachiever” who is not up to the job.
Khan took the gloves off in an interview with The Sunday Times after Goldsmith accused him, on his election leaflets, of being “radical and divisive”. Khan said the Tories were “playing with fire” by labelling a Muslim candidate in that way and said it could upset ethnic and religious harmony in the capital.
He also branded Goldsmith the “Scarlet Pimpernel of the City”, saying the Tory was not in touch with business leaders.
In the interview, Khan warned Jeremy Corbyn not to hold a “revenge reshuffle” to oust party moderates; said Labour’s leader would “not get a second look” from voters if he stuck to a core vote strategy; and said Labour’s leader was still “learning the ropes” .
Khan said he would not criticise Goldsmith for being the son of a billionaire, the late former Referendum party leader Sir James Goldsmith. But he claimed his own experience as a transport minister, human rights solicitor and as one of eight siblings born to a bus driver, whose escape from poverty he calls “the London story”, has prepared him better for the job.
“Neither of us can help the families we came from,” he said. “It’s about using the hand you’ve been given.
He hit out at Goldsmith’s role editing The Ecologist magazine and his involvement with high-end bookmaker Fitzdares, which recorded losses of £115,000 in 2014. “He’s somebody who before becoming a member of parliament has had one proper job which was given to him by his uncle. He’s somebody who as a high-end bookie lost money.
“Since being elected an MP, David Cameron hasn’t given him even the most junior of junior jobs. He’s a serial and habitual underachiever. He never finishes anything he starts.”
Khan declined to criticise the knighthood handed last week to Lynton Crosby, the Tory strategist behind Johnson’s and David Cameron’s victories, whose business partner Mark Fullbrook is Goldsmith’s campaign director. He said: “I don’t begrudge Lynton Crosby his knighthood. What I do worry about is the Crosbyisation of politics, divisive politics.”
Khan said the leaflet branding him “radical” was “frankly offensive”. He said: “Calling someone divisive and radical, be very careful how that’s perceived. You’re playing with fire. When you say that about a candidate of Islamic faith, what are you implying? That will come back and bite you in the bum if you resort to that.”
Goldsmith’s spokeswoman said: “Sadiq Khan will say anything to get elected but he cannot get away from the fact he nominated Jeremy Corbyn. His brand of negative tribal politics will bring gridlock and inaction.”
Khan nominated Corbyn for Labour leader to widen debate but did not vote for him. He said he would not want to see Labour moderates sacked in the reshuffle expected this week: “When you are wanting to be the next government, politics is a team sport. You want the most able, talented people around you.”
He said the shadow cabinet would “absolutely” be stronger if those Corbyn was threatening to axe kept their jobs.
Khan says he does not regret helping him onto the ballot paper but warns that he needed to attract those beyond the left-wing Labour tribe who elected him.
“Jeremy Corbyn is popular in some parts of London . . . [and] less popular in some other parts of London. You cannot win a general election with a core vote strategy. In the 1980s we lost election after election after election by telling ourselves there should be no compromise with the electorate.
“My party needs to win elections to improve the quality of people’s lives. You can’t rely on the Labour selectorate to win an election. To win elections you’ve got to court more than your core vote or people won’t give you a second glance.”
Khan said Corbyn “has spent all his political career — up until he became leader — on the back benches. Being on the front bench is a different kettle of fish. He’s learning the ropes.”
He praised Tories including George Osborne and Boris Johnson for backing Crossrail and travelling the world to drum up trade for London. And he said he “really likes” Sajid Javid, the business secretary, whose father was also a bus driver. Javid is tipped as a future Tory leader. Does Khan fancy replacing Corbyn and taking him on?
“No, for me being the mayor of London is a destination job,” he said.
This article originally appeared on The Sunday Times.