The starting gun has been fired.  But there is no finishing line.  Such is the peculiar condition of the race for the London Mayoral Conservative candidacy, which Zac Goldsmith and Syed Kamall have recently joined.  Yes, that’s right: the Party has not yet announced a date by which the contest must end, and on which the victorious candidate’s name will be proclaimed.  Why not?

Thereby hangs a tale – one that casts a light on Downing Street and CCHQ’s current state of mind.  The best way of starting to tell it is to consider the options that both have in setting the framework for the competitors: to date, Andrew Boff, Sol Campbell, Steven Greenhalgh and Ivan Massow, as well as Goldsmith and Kamall.

With the actual election less than year away, and Labour’s contest well advanced – it recently published its shortlist of candidates, of which Tessa Jowell and Sadiq Khan are favourites – the powers-that-be must make two big decisions. First, how should the selection be made – by a ballot of party members, or by open primary?  Second, should it run “short” (aiming to conclude by, say, the beginning of September) or “long” (with an announcement at Party Conference, and the victor introduced to the yodelling masses, presumably by Boris Johnson)?

Needless to say, the candidates are viewing these questions through the prism of their own interests.  What follows is an incomplete take on these, partly because counsel within their own camps is sometimes divided.  Goldsmith and Kamall appear to be the front-runners.  And the sense among those to whom ConHome has spoken is that the wider the voting net is cast, the better Goldsmith is likely to fare – simply because his name recognition is greater, certainly among London voters as a whole and arguably among Party members in the capital too (though not necessarily among active members).

The view of the candidates on who gains if the race is run “short” or, alternatively, “long” is less clear.  Arguably, it is in the interest of the best-known candidate, Goldsmith, to get the contest over quickly before any of the others – most likely Kamall – is in a position to forge ahead of the rest and get a bandwagon going.  But the consensus view is that Goldsmith is well placed either way.  He has organisation: Nick de Bois is on board, with his connections in North London.  And he has money: the Goldsmith millions.

There is a lobby in CCHQ for an Open Primary, and it isn’t hard to see why.  Flinging the selection open to the public or to registered supporters, as Labour is doing, would create a big publicity bang.  Furthermore, it would bring a flow of new data streaming into CCHQ – ready to be processed, for next May, by the team which processed all that gathered during the last Parliament, and then crunched the numbers; identified the hopes, fears and interests of individual voters, and drafted the campaigning letters and e-mails that helped to deliver a famous victory.

Such a manoeuvre might be easier to execute than ascertaining who exactly is currently on which Association’s membership list.  But it would have implications for the leadership contest to succeed David Cameron – one that could take place as early as 2017.  If an open primary is right for a Mayoral candidate, the argument would run, why is it wrong for a future leader?  Talking of which, George Osborne is reportedly in favour of the Party putting on as big a show during its candidate selection as possible.  This isn’t surprising: after all, he has a big stake in a Conservative win next May.

Arguably, it’s a much bigger one than the Prime Minister’s.  David Cameron’s attention is fixed on that European renegotiation and referendum.  His goal is to get a deal and win the plebiscite – his third referendum victory, following the rejection of AV and of independence for Scotland at the ballot box.  Undefeated in two successive general elections and with his referendum battles all won, Cameron would then be able to ride off Indiana Jones-style into the sunset.  Naturally, he will want a Tory win in London next May.  But a Tory defeat wouldn’t spoil the glittering scenario above.

Furthermore, Downing Street’s view of the candidates is riddled with ambiguity.  Last month’s election has damaged the standing of opinion polls.  Few have been conducted on the London contest.  And the most prominent one was conducted before Kamall entered the race.  So the evidence available on who is best placed to beat Labour is scanty.  However, the survey in question showed Goldsmith neck-and-neck with Sadiq Khan: he and Tessa Jowell are the two leading Labour candidates.  It also showed the Richmond Park MP behind Jowell – but she may not survive through Labour’s own process.

One might presume that Goldsmith – a Green Conservative and no free market ideologue – would be Cameron’s man (though claims that the Eton connection helps are, like many such claims, rather wide of the mark).  But Number Ten is wary of the Richmond Park MP.  Goldsmith is a rebel by temperament and inclination.  During the last Parliament, he teamed up with Douglas Carswell to harry the Government on recall.  And he is a committed Euro-sceptic.  Only last week, he voted against a three-line whip during the EU Referendum Bill on purdah.

A Goldsmith win in the London Mayoral election itself would also be seen a rejection of Heathrow expansion by the capital: is this really in Cameron and Osborne’s interest?  Finally, it is worth noting one bad argument for a long contest – namely, that this would make it easier for the candidates to pack their campaigning activity into September, and do nothing very much during the month to come and the holiday period of August.  This would give Labour a chance to get ahead of the game.  Khan in particular has been very active – running the London Marathon, giving interviews, raising his profile.

ConservativeHome has no preferred candidate, at least at this stage.  We want to see more of the policies which they want and the platforms on which they are standing.  But we do have a view on how the contest should be run.

  • The contest should go long and not short.  It makes sense to time the candidate announcement for Party Conference, where it would get coverage and projection.  September also sees the other party conferences, which makes an earlier announcement problematic.
  • Our preference is for a ballot of party members.  You would scarcely expect anything else from this site – which made its name defending the right of members to vote during the 2005 leadership election.  An Open Primary would also pose its own organisational hazards.  But we can see the case for flinging the doors open wide to a bigger selectorate.  Either way, all the candidates’ names should be on the ballot: maximum possible choice, please.
  • But a long contest doesn’t mean abandoning July.  CCHQ has time to organise events in London for the candidates during the second half of next month.  They could visit each part of the capital – meeting members, seeing projects, getting publicity.  They could set out their stall.  They could lead action days in Jowell’s and especially Khan’s seats.  Where there’s a will there are ways.