OPINION - Sadiq Khan's London homelessness claim shocked me: how can he say this?

 (Jeremy Selwyn)
(Jeremy Selwyn)

Two weeks ago, Sadiq Khan’s re-election team tried to hide one of his big manifesto pledges in plain sight.

When his election broadcast was screened on BBC1 (a day late, after somebody at the Beeb pressed the wrong button and ran his Tory rival Susan Hall’s film instead), it contained an eye-popping pledge to eradicate rough sleeping.

Now I don’t get out much these days, it being harder to find a babysitter in my part of east London than a Tory election leaflet. But any visit “up west”, as they maybe still say in EastEnders, is met with the terrible sight of countless poor souls bedded down in abandoned doorways.

Was Khan spinning in search of a soundbite? Has he run out of sensible things to say?

Tottenham Court Road’s long been a half-mile of misery — shabby tents and tarpaulins outside Heal’s and what was once Habitat. Likewise for Oxford Street, and in the shadows around Charing Cross and Waterloo.

What, though, of this extraordinary pledge? “I think the campaign comms director will literally have my guts for garters if I respond to that question in any other way than to say: ‘Wait for the manifesto’,” Khan told me.

Unveiling more details (though not the full manifesto) earlier this week, Khan even put a date on it.

Rough sleeping would be “eliminated by 2030”, he promised, though without making clear if he’d still be Mayor by 2030 too.

Do we award him top marks for ambition, or yellow card him for making an incredible (i.e. implausible) promise?

The number of rough sleepers has increased by 71 per cent since he became Mayor in 2016. Outreach workers found 4,389 people sleeping rough in the last three months of last year. Many have complex problems. Some may not even want a home. This is a fiendish problem to solve.

Has Khan been bounced into this pledge by the London Labour Party, asserting a right to shape his manifesto? Was he spinning in search of a soundbite? Has he run out of sensible things to say?

It’s two weeks till polling day and I’m still waiting for that compelling argument for a third term. (Stop press: I was at the time of writing. He’s now unveiled his blockbuster pledge: free school meals for the next four years for all London primary school pupils.) By all means think big, but let’s keep politics to the art of the possible.

Ross Lydall is City Hall Editor