Friday night’s mayoral candidates’ hustings, run by Parsons Green and Sand End Wards in association with Conservative Way Forward and London Conservative Future, showcased three electable candidates. Andrew Boff, Stephen Greenhalgh, and Syed Kamall all responded well to constructive questioning on issues including housing, the unions, the image of the party, infrastructure, and devolution.
But does this count for anything?
We’d better acknowledge the well-bred elephant in the room – or rather, conspicuously not. For, common sense and polling indicate that the eventual winner of the Conservative candidacy will actually be renegade green poster-boy and Heathrow-hater, Zac Goldsmith. And his absence made the event feel like a book without its protagonist: as if Scout or Atticus had gone all Mrs Mainwaring on us. Whilst, no doubt, Goldsmith had a reason for this, the cynic might suggest it was backed by a desire to avoid discussing issues such as Parsons Green’s topic de jour: the alternatively alliterative ‘Super Sewer’, or ‘Thames Tideway Tunnel’.
There will not be a hustings featuring all of the declared candidates before the coming CCHQ cull.
The failures – and certainties – of the selection process have already been well documented on this site; the audience, and all three of last night’s contenders were evidently frustrated by the situation.
Just because the shoo-in was missing, however, didn’t mean that a favourite wasn’t present. His chances may only be at around 20/1,
but the setting was welcome home turf for deputy mayor Stephen Greenhalgh, former leader of the neighbourhood council, and dependable local-boy-made-good, who could name most of the audience, and was heartily applauded after every answer. Their enthusiasm was not unfounded. Greenhalgh may have been helped by questions directed at his strengths, but, regardless, he came across as the consummate local candidate with the most relevant experience. And he showed balance: his pragmatic mantra may be ‘What can the mayor do?’, yet he also confided beforehand that, ‘For me, politics is a battle of ideals.’
A soft focus on calculable favourites, however, risks overlooking the evening’s other principal. Ok, we know he won’t win either, but Syed Kamall was constantly impressive in his intelligent – and often humorous – delivery. His unashamed fondness for Margaret Thatcher, national powerhouses, leisure flights, libertarian nudging, and 3D printing was more memorable than his stagy triumvirate of ‘ambition, opportunity, and enterprise’. Kamall deserves to be seen as so much more than a convenient one-of-three on a manufactured shortlist.
Andrew Boff was good, too. Some people may have been overheard asking who he was, but this four-time mayoral candidate proved himself to be another solid contender. Perhaps lacking nuance – such as in describing the EU as a ‘socialist construct’ – he clearly knows a great deal about London, and speaks engagingly positively about it, too. He’s keen to be pro-active, and ‘knock on a few doors we haven’t knocked on before,’ to ensure that the party is fully representative of the country.
Depending on your political persuasion, our capital is either a persistent red blotch on a happily blue-ing map of England, or the forward-thinking melting pot of a under-appreciated march for social justice. Its idiosyncrasies have been well met by a truly idiosyncratic mayor: the popstar politician who gave the still nascent role its superstardom. Whether Goldsmith will become BoJo’s successor thanks to their similarities, or his obvious skill, the real shame of CCHQ’s proposed staging of a faux-balanced contest is that it could unforgivably dilute Kamall’s strength as a real alternative to Goldsmith, whilst denying any opportunity to outside contenders like Greenhalgh.
If localisation is to remain at the heart of modern conservatism – and the mayoral model its symbol – then 5 May 2016 is about much more than just London. And we should be buoyed by the number of high-quality candidates wanting to represent the party. This should be cause for celebration not limitation; it should offer the electorate real Conservative choice.
Yet, as one contestant concluded, ‘Do you know what? I hate committees! But my political future is in their hands.’
Scores based solely on Friday’s performance:
Andrew Boff: presence (3) content (3) audience reception (3)
Stephen Greenhalgh: presence (4) content (4) audience reception (5)
Syed Kamall: presence (5) content (4) audience reception (4).