I once heard James Goldsmith sounding off about how much he hated politicians. His son, Zac Goldsmith, can’t exactly feel the same way (after all, he is himself an MP), but is also an outsider. He represents his Richmond Park constituency with more than a touch of independence, having threatened to resign it over Heathrow expansion. It is the seat in which he grew up, which adds to this air of self-suffiency. While he is the servant of his constituents – believing forcefully in the right of recall – he has turned it into a personal fiefdom: it was a marginal only five years ago, and local voters know that he puts them first. Sir James founded another political party. Zac was drawn late into the Conservatives by one of his own passions: the environment, serving on a policy group in opposition. He has never been a councillor and never fought another seat.
Sadiq Khan, his opponent for London’s mayoralty, also grew up in the constituency he represents (Tooting) and has never fought another. There the resemblance ends. He has been steadily working his way up the Labour Party ladder since his youth. He was first a councillor, then an MP, then a Minister, then a Cabinet Minister, then – after Labour was defeated in 2010 – Ed Miliband’s campaign manager and a Shadow Cabinet Minister. He now believes that being the Mayor of London represents a higher rung than Jeremy Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet, and who can blame him? He is a focused, adaptable, on-message, risk-averse party political operator where Zac is an eclectic, romantic, somewhat off-message, risk-taking individualist who doesn’t always do what the whips tell him.
Such are the two men who are squaring up to each other in a contest that be over in less than four months. As matters stand, even Team Goldsmith acknowledge that Khan is favourite to win. When push comes to shove, London is a Labour city. Only nine of its 32 boroughs are held by the Conservatives. Had it run a candidate whose tax affairs were in better shape than Ken Livingstone’s, Boris Johnson would have lost his second mayoral election. Last May, as it stalled or collapsed elsewhere, Labour advanced in the capital, winning 45 of the 73 seats and ousting four Conservative MPs. It claimed before the election that about one in five of its members lived in London, but the real figure may well have been higher.
That was before the Corbyn earthquake. Labour held its Mayoral primary at the same time as its leadership election. Almost 88,000 votes were cast in it, and only just above 9000 in the Conservative one, which took place later – down from about 15,500 five years ago. If Khan can mobilise a healthy slice of this rush of enthusiasts, among whom will be many new Labour members, he will out-gun Zac in the ground war. His plan is clear enough: get out the inner London Labour vote, lull Tory supporters in outer London into staying at home, and angle for transfers. In a recent Spectator interview, he lauded Boris as a “great salesman for our city”, welcomed the presence of billionaires in London, and claimed a record of working with Tories in Wandsworth. The game’s not hard to spot.
In these early days of this New Year, he appears to be in a strong position. A YouGov poll last week suggested that he has an increasing lead over Zac, and that a key factor is the greater number of Labour voters in London. Leaflet-distributing Khan teams are also out and about. The position is causing restiveness in some Conservative quarters. One London Tory MP said that Zac hasn’t yet spoken to all of them to get their views. A senior Minister with responsibility for a big policy area which impacts on London said that he has had no approach from the candidate. There are complaints from councillors that decisions from Team Zac some slowly.
This should all be taken with a pinch of salt – much of it, anyway. These are early days. Action days for Zac are kicking off. He is holding “Telephone Town Hall” sessions. And Mark Fullbrook of Crosby Textor Fullbrook fame is back in CCHQ directing the Mayoral candidate’s push. He’s a former head of campaigns there and was deputy director of successful Boris’s 2012 bid. Crosby himself is hovering in the background. Mention of the firm is a reminder that voter contact rates aren’t everything: a lesson of the Conservative election campaign is that what matters more than how many people you find is which ones. That means letters to target voters and people to deliver them. One angle worth watching will be what CCHQ does about carrying on the work of Team 2015.
Zac’s green credentials ought to win him some cut-through with some younger voters (at least when it comes to transfers) and his Leave inclinations should do the same with some UKIP ones – though Europe is not a key driver for many of them, and London is among the least Eurosceptic parts of the country. Indeed, the EU referendum probably poses the biggest problem of all for Zac, though not so much in a message sense as a machine one. It is unusual for the Party leadership not to have its gaze fixed on the annual spring elections cycle. But this, with a referendum looming, is an unusual year. That may have consequences for the London Mayoralty. For example, what are the knock-on effects of the Edmonds and Elder digital enterprise only being available for CCHQ part-time?
I don’t buy the conspiracy theory that senior Tories would be happier to see London have a Labour Mayor, in order to help keep Corbyn in place. Politicians want to win elections, and George Osborne likes winning them more than most. But the fact is that this year’s London Mayoral election – not to mention all those others taking place in May in the capital and elsewhere – have played second fiddle all along: first to last spring’s general election and now to this year’s (we assume) EU referendum. Many Conservative activists in London will be gearing up to back Remain or Leave, and the Europe issue provokes passions and consumes time. Getting campaigning levels up to those of last May will be hard work for Fullbrook and his team.
Team Zac has three main tasks during the weeks ahead. The first two are a mirror image of Team Khan’s. Zac’s main message is not so much a policy pledge (although he is rightly preoccupied particularly with housing) as a political statement. The Tories will be in government until at least 2020, it runs – so, like them or not, you need a Mayor who will not only work for you but with Ministers – and who can deliver for London. Zac’s first task is get that message over, especially to floating voters in Labour-leaning inner London who don’t usually vore Tory. His second is convincing blue-tinged outer London that there will be, as one member of Team Zac puts it, “a cost to Khan”, and getting it to turn out at the polls.
There’s already a SadiqWatch website – the dual thrust of which is that Khan is Corbyn’s man, and that he can’t deliver for London. Zac’s third task is more personal, and perhaps the most straining of all. Being his own man, a conviction campaigner, unspun and a bit shy is part of his charm. And Cameron has proved that an education at the country’s best-known private school is not an insuperable obstacle to electoral success. But this few-holds-barred scrap for the Mayoralty will be rather different from the civilised business of seeking re-election in his beautiful constituency. It will require Zac, without losing his freewheeling style, to keep working – “that’s what he needs to do: to show energy,” a senior London Tory mused aloud this week to me – and show discipline.
In short, he must knuckle down to the dreary business of shunning distractions, staying focused, keeping on-message. He will need be – how his father would have hated it! – a bit more of a politician. Can he do it? Win or lose, we will know the answer by May 9.
Later this week, ConservativeHome will be running a mini-series from guest writers on what Zac needs to do to win.