Political violence is returning to the UK, bursting out of the morass of conspiracy and extremism online. There is at times a Blairish elusiveness to the way Khan talks—broadcastable sound bites, reversions to cliché, and a genial caution in the phrasing of his answers. But as we talk about the loss of the rational center, he leans in to interrupt. “Look, I was mates with Jo Cox,” he says. “She was one of my best friends.”

In 2016, Cox—a Labour member of parliament for the northern constituency of Batley and Spen—was murdered by a white supremacist who subscribed to the Great Replacement theory. In 2021, Conservative MP David Amess was murdered by an Islamic fundamentalist who had become radicalized online. “I’ve got a protection team. I live it every day, the consequences of this, the violence,” Khan says. “What I will not allow is to be cowed by those threats, because that’s what they want. They want for me to be scared.”

Khan insists he’s an optimist. Despite the “hysteria” and the culture wars, he believes there’s still a middle ground where people can be persuaded with facts, where conflict can be resolved with discussion. Biden beat Trump in 2020, he points out; the moderate Emmanuel Macron saw off a far-right challenge from Marine Le Pen in France.

On the other hand, the Islamophobic politician Geert Wilders is close to power in the Netherlands after winning the most votes in elections in November, running on a nativist, anti-immigration, climate-skeptic platform. Trump is ascendant again in the US, and the British government has made clear that it’s planning to fight a general election in 2024 by doubling down on hard-right policies.

In fact, the UK government seemed to take inspiration from the ULEZ spin cycle. The prime minister, Rishi Sunak, announced a list of “common sense” policies, which included rolling back a fictional “meat tax” and ruling out forcing households to divide their recycling into seven bins—something that had never been seriously under consideration. In September, Sunak announced he was “slamming the brakes on the war on motorists,” attacking speed limits and traffic reduction measures, before rolling back net-zero emissions targets, including delaying a planned phase-out of new diesel and petrol vehicle sales in the UK. In January, The Guardian reported that government ministers had cited 15-minute cities conspiracies around freedom of movement when making transport policy.

Nervous of the backlash, Khan’s own Labour party, which is likely to defeat the Conservatives in a general election this year, shelved climate spending targets after distancing itself from the ULEZ policy. “The misinformation was accepted by all the parties except the Green Party, and so it became normalized,” Khan says. “My concern with addressing climate change, or addressing air pollution, or these sorts of green issues, is that politicians may be vacating the pitch because they’ve learned the wrong lessons.”

It’s hard not to interpret this as a victory for bullshit. Populist politicians have co-opted the language of conspiracy—the Old Etonians and Oxbridge graduates who make up much of Britain’s ruling class now rail against elite control. In February, the former cabinet minister and Conservative Party grandee Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg gave a speech decrying the “international cabals and quangos telling hundreds of millions of people how to lead their lives.” Former prime minister Liz Truss shared a stage with Steve Bannon to attack the “deep state” that she claims brought her down after 44 disastrous days in office. Lee Anderson—a prominent Conservative MP and, until January, the party’s deputy chairperson—said in a TV interview that Islamists had “got control of Khan and got control of London.” Anderson was eventually suspended from the party.