Ian Duncan is Conservative MEP for Scotland.
I first visited London many years ago, a young geologist in the big smoke. My sleeper from Edinburgh pulled into Kings Cross in the early morning and I remember groggily stumbling toward the tube. Thereafter all I recall is the command which, if you are a Londoner, needs no introduction: ‘Mind the gap.’
That instruction returned to me recently as I considered the Conservative candidates for Mayor of London. Fine fellows all, able and capable. That is one of the strengths of the Conservative Party; we are well stocked with good candidates. However, the warning, ‘Mind the gap,’ returned to me, for I believe that there is a significant gap between one candidate and the rest. If you are a Conservative in London, Syed Kamall deserves your vote.
Now Londoners may be growing weary of another voice from north of the border, turned up to 56, but bear with me. Syed leads the third largest political group in the European Parliament – no mean feat. He is the first Muslim to lead such a group, and the first Londoner, too. He has been fighting in Brussels for the interests of Londoners for over a decade. I will come back to that, because it is important.
I first met Syed when I was a bright-eyed Euro-candidate, and he was tasked with explaining to me how the EU should help business. I think it would be true to say that Syed wasn’t a fan of the EU’s approach. As he explained, you don’t regulate small businesses into existence. Start-ups are not born of form-filling. Syed is a ground-up person, a grassroots advocate. He outlined to me his vision for crowd-funded loans to support young entrepreneurs. For those of you who know of Kiva, Syed is a passionate supporter of a domestic version (for those of you who don’t know of it yet, check it out).
By this point, he was on a roll: local Conservative offices should be community centres, a gathering space for all, for political debate, advice, a meeting place for knitters and after school clubs, those with problems and those with solutions. He spoke of his work with gang members and ex-offenders. Each time, the discussion always returned to local solutions. For Syed, all politics is local; it’s about community, stupid.
He delivered this vision in 30 minutes - a manifesto for change, crafted over a decades long career of helping people get up and get on.
All of which brings me back to Brussels. In a parliament chock-full of nodders and plodders, Syed is a straight-talking, eurosceptical advocate of change. He is one of the main reasons that the group he leads continues to grow. Just the other week he brought across the floor several Italian MEPs.
Henry Kissinger once demanded, ‘Who do I call if I want to call Europe?’ For the Prime Minister, it’s Syed Kamall - and he has him on speed-dial for a reason.
Syed sits on the two Euro-Parliament committees critical to London: the Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee and the International Trade Committee. The EU is always trying to get a slice of London. Syed spends hours dissecting and debating dozens of would-be EU laws, all of which could undermine or disadvantage London’s financial services sector. Not a bad grounding for a future mayor.
His dad instilled in him from an early age that anyone in Great Britain could make it, that all it took was a plan and hard work. His dad would know: he emigrated from Guyana in the 1950s, and earned a living driving London’s distinctive double-decker buses.
All these are fine reasons for voting for Syed – reasons that separate him from the pack. However, I have saved the most important reason for last. If you speak to folks in the Labour ranks, from parliamentarians to activists, there is clear consensus on who they don’t want to be the Tory candidate for mayor. It’s Dr Syed Kamall MEP – dedicated campaigner for small businesses, passionate advocate for European reform, happy Muslim, son of a migrant bus driver. They don’t want him to be the Tory candidate because they know he could win.
So, Londoners, when it comes to selecting a candidate for mayor, remember: ‘Mind the Gap.’