Endorsements of politicians are over-rated, at least when they come from newspapers. What matters more are front page headlines; whether photos mock or flatter; how they treat analysis, and the tone and flavour of the coverage. ConservativeHome has tried to be fair to the four aspirant Conservative London Mayoral candidates, running a series of pieces by Harry Phibbs about their policies on some of the main issues: Heathrow and aviation, crime and anti-social behaviour, housing and planning, transport, and the environment.
However, we must take a view sooner or later and, since ballot papers will apparently soon go out, this morning is as good a moment to give one as any. It is influenced by the hustings that I chaired on Tuesday, courtesy of Wandsworth and Wimbledon Conservatives, during which all four hopefuls set out their views. I’m grateful to all concerned for giving me a chance to concentrate on the selection and revisit the issues.
The candidate on whose behalf this site has made the most noise is Stephen Greenhalgh. I argued that he should not be kept out of the final selection simply because he is not a woman or a member of an ethnic minority. I saw him as a test of whether being a white middle-aged heterosexual businessman was now an automatic bar to mayoral candidacy within the Conservative Party (and thought that Ivan Massow and Phillipa Rowe should also have their place in the sun).
However, being a white middle-aged heterosexual business is clearly not an automatic qualification for running, and there is a great deal more to Greenhalgh than that. He has run a big London authority, Hammersmith and Fulham – and very well, too. Furthermore, he and his team won it off Labour. He is the most obviously senior of the two candidates with local government experience, being Deputy Mayor to Boris Johnson with responsibility for crime and policing.
What I noticed most about his manifesto is its precision – 50,000 new homes in the next four years; travelcard, rail and tube fares cut by three per cent; 5000 police officers in neighbourhoods to keep victim-based crime falling. A Greenhalgh mayoralty would clearly be professional, knowledgeable and focused, and I like his stress on helping “hard-working people” – that’s to say, not seeing the capital’s voters as balkanised tribes of special interest groups.
The conventional wisdom is that Greenhalgh is too orthodox a Tory and not well known enough outside his West London hinterland to cut through to the undecided voters who will decide the election – in London’s Labour-leaning core, anyway. But he won and run a council in precisely that territory. I suspect that Greenhalgh would be to London what John Howard was to Australia: strong, no-nonsense and well-rated. He would be a good Mayor.
A question at the start is why Kamall wants to swap being leader of the Conservative and Reformists Group in the European Parliament for being Mayor of London – after all, the ECRG is now a real force in Brussels and his role there is an important one: he has also led the Conservative Group in the Parliament itself The answer seems to be simple: he’s a Londoner through and through, has a passion for the city, and wants to make life in it better.
Kamall has a lively fan base in the London Party. This isn’t just because he’s had the chance to get around it thoroughly as an MEP. Rather, it’s because he’s a very, very nice guy (I have never heard him speak a bad word about anyone) with a very attractive political profile: informed free market views, liberal Islam, moderately expressed Euro-scepticism and a deep engagement with social action. The back story isn’t everything but this is the stuff of which the next Party leader would be made if it were.
He wants to see a new airport built with private money, ideally in the Thames Estuary; roll out community schemes to cut crime; redesign the planning system; invest to reduce journey times – he thinks there’s a choice between lower fares and faster journeys, and opts decisively for the former – and nudge vehicles to go electric. On the platform on Monday, he was concise, informed, and good-humoured – enjoying the opportunity to differ from Boris over Uber.
This Muslim son of a bus driver would clearly relish the chance to take on another son of a Muslim bus driver. But, again, there is the name recognition factor to consider: how well known is Kamall outside the Party members? Could he cut through in time? He would be a fine Mayor, though I confess I would be reluctant to see him leave the European Parliament, given the coming referendum and his role…unless he were to come to the Commons, where he would be Cabinet material.
I have a difficult history with Boff. I thought that his wooing of the East London Mosque was a bad judgement call, and what he thought of my own judgement is probably unprintable. Until very recently, my impression was that he is a showman with a nice line in jokes and quirky views on policy – no more, no less. But I was reminded on checking that he has put in for the nomination no fewer than three times already, coming second twice – including last time.
These persistent good showings have happened for a reason and, during the course of this campaign, I may finally have clocked what it is. Boff is very experienced and knowledgable indeed, and a real love and enthusiasm for London somehow shines through him. His style is outsiderish, but he has led a council, Hillingdon, and is Leader of the Conservative Group on the London Assembly: you don’t get to do either if you can’t work with people.
The manifestos of all four candidates dig deep, but Boff’s ranges amazingly wide. His motto seems to be the old Latin tag: nothing human is alien to me. He wants to see cannabis possession decriminalised, managed areas for street prostitution, restrictions on new building height, the giving away of some public land. You may dismiss some of this as mere mouthing-off. But he has a solidly worked-out rationale for each policy. I’m impressed by the catholicity of his interests.
And I love his insistence, like that of the hero in the The Man Who Was Thursday, that transport should be boring. Quite so! What we want from it is to get from A to B. But look at how carefully he has thought through how lower fares might happen. This is characteristic of how he digs into the detail. Of all the candidates, it seems to me that the freethinking, freewheeling Boff would do the most to transform perceptions of the party. I am seized by a compulsive desire to see him as Mayor of London.
Goldsmith is very like Boff in one important way and rather unlike him in another. The former is that he is his own man. The latter is that he is better known among the public, or so we’re told. What for? Principally, surely, for being rich, independent-minded and green. The first is not an insuperable obstacle to electoral success. The second is a decided plus – one that both the present Mayor and his predecessor both also possessed. And the third will matter next May.
London is much, much more than a Conservative-inclined outer suburban ring and a Labour-leaning inner city one. But this is none the less a serviceable prism through which to look forward to next year’s poll. The key to a Tory victory is a combination of high turnout in the suburbs and attracting swing voters in the core. Admittedly, none of the four candidates will have anything like Boris’s reach and range of appeal to poorer, white, working-class voters.
Like the other three, Goldsmith would pick up quite a bit of support among Indian-origin and Jewish voters. But he has a track record of appealing to younger, greenish, liberal-minded ones, of whom there are a lot in London. So, arguably, would Boff and perhaps Kamall, but mention of these others only returns us to the name recognition factor. The pollsters were wrong in May, but they say that it matters – and the selection, of course, will be decided by Open Primary, not Party members alone.
So I think it will and should be Goldsmith – and not only because of the calculation that name recognition plus demonstrable independence can overhaul Sadiq Khan, a standard Labour machine politician, among those key voters. In a way, Goldsmith is the good ghost of the Corbyn phenomenon: a hunger for authenticity, a certain rebelliousness, not towing a Party line. And he sticks to his guns – for example, over a hub airport, which he is the only one of the four to oppose in principle.
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This Euro-sceptic green romantic has been a stunning success in Richmond Park. His wider candidacy will be a risk, but it is one we should take – and, frankly, it will be a shock if the primary produces anyone else. If Goldsmith wins through, Kamall will presumably be unavailable to serve under him at City Hall. But I hope Greenhalgh stays on and that Boff gets a big policy post there, if he’s prepared to give up his position in the Conservative GLA group.