Spiral Notebook: Lutfur Rahman - here comes the new boss, same as the old boss?

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COMMENT

By Giles Broadbent

Racked by weariness and relief, the new Mayor of Tower Hamlets wept. He was hurt, he said, by accusation that he was racist, that he was a disciple of division.

He wanted to reach out to all residents, from the penthouses of Pan Peninsula to the wretched corners of Whitechapel.

Is this the same mayor, we wondered, who had accused Panorama of Islamophobia? The same mayor whose right hand man in the council had taunted Labour's "blackshirts"? The same mayor who holds sway over an intimidating conglomerate that required, uniquely, police at polling stations and an election night lockdown?

Mr Rahman declared - implored even - that we should understand his need for a car, such was the weight of his workload. He begged to be judged on his record. He invited those who had not voted for him to pop in for a cup of tea and a chat.

Is this the same mayor, we wondered, who had failed to show up at hustings, snubbed interviews requests, who repeatedly refused to answer questions in the council chamber?

Was this the dawn of Lutfur Rahman 2.0? One who, albeit belatedly, thanked rival John Biggs (after initially refusing to condemn his supporters for branding him "racist".)

The next day, according to the redoubtable Cllr Peter Golds, the mayor's men had not received the memo.

They surged the Mile End count on Sunday, making a nuisance of themselves, swearing and interrupting the democratic processes while Mr Rahman - less tired and emotional - looked on, powerless or unwilling to intervene, says Cllr Gold.

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The question is unanswered. Has the mayor the power or will to deaden the instincts of his agitated army? To uncircle his wagons? He comes across as a curiously hollow, needy figure who has seemed, in the past, hesitant to leave the safe harbour of his narrow base to embrace the daunting, fast-moving, rainbow world of Tower Hamlets.

Perhaps after his second endorsement he will have the confidence to quieten the whisperers who play on his paranoia, to distance himself from the more thuggish elements of his support.

Engage in rough and tumble, not hide and seek.

Perhaps he will turn his attention to governance rather than politics. For while London was busy packing itself on the back for its rejection of Ukip, Tower Hamlets was much the same, split down racial lines and bumbling along with familiar claims of incompetence and intimidation.

Its inability to conduct a count held up the Euro results and made the election a pizza-munching marathon and the name Tower Hamlets once more synonymous with farce.

Will Mr Rahman play to - or cower from - the council chamber, the power now divided between the 18 (17 male) Bengali councillors of his Tower Hamlets First party and the beleaguered remnants of Labour whose reliance on the numbers game came unstuck?

There is talk already of co-operation. Labour needs Mr Rahman's Tower Hamlets First - the Respect rump - to stay out the general election when Rushanara Ali could become vulnerable; Mr Rahman seemingly wants the legitimacy of Labour and a big hug from former comrades.

Whether the poisonous politics of the last four years allows for such reconciliation is difficult to gauge. History suggests it will be tough.

In the meantime, key dates loom: Mr Rahman picks his cabinet and signals who has his ear on June 11; the postponed Blackwall and Cubitt Town election comes at the same time; June 30 sees the Government-appointed auditors issue their report into claims of the mayor's financial "favouritism" towards Bengalis.

This latter date is crucial. A harsh verdict in Eric Pickles' hands could render the mayor's colour-blind credibility stillborn. If the accusation that he "bought the election" finds traction it would muddy his mandate and lead to four more fractious years.

The mayor will hope favourable findings will pull him clear of trouble, wipe the slate clean and give him the foundation for a more statesmanlike term in office.

But those of us in Canary Wharf, this is, surely, an irrelevant pantomime. The infighting of inner city fiefdoms distracts from the narrative of entrepreneurial, high-skilled, all-embracing, liberal-leaning, self-reliant, cosmopolitan east London looking forwards and outwards.

The time is coming closer, surely, when the "river city" hubs - Isle of Dogs, Wapping and Newham's Royal Docks - perhaps even Rotherhithe and North Greenwich - seek permission to cut loose from the deadweight and form their own, progressive civic institution.

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