Before the Conservative Party Conference opens in Birmingham on Sunday September 30th, the Conservatives will have chosen their candidate for the 2020 election for Mayor of London. On Friday, this site was dominated by each of those who made the final ten setting out their stall. On Saturday, I reported that after interviews the Party had whittled it down to three – Shaun Bailey, Andrew Boff, and Joy Morrissey.
So that list has a black man, a gay man, and a woman. Cue groans from those exasperated by the identity politics which so entrances the media (since it offers an alternative to boring old policies) and which, since David Cameron’s leadership, the Conservative Party has been so transfixed by.
I too am exasperated by identity politics. But I am not groaning. I think the shortlist is good. One spot of good news is that all three are Conservatives. By that, I mean both that they are all Party stalwarts: they have all spent years campaigning, knocking on doors, handing out leaflets in the sun and in the rain. I also mean that, for all their range of opinions, all three of them have clear and distinctive Conservative beliefs. This might seem obvious. However, given the background story of the A List and supposed past efforts to woo independent “celebrities” (such as Greg Dyke) to be our candidate, it is a solid start.
Another groan comes from some people complaining that we don’t have a “big name”. But then Sadiq Khan wasn’t much talked about in the pubs of Enfield before he was chosen as the Labour candidate. If we choose someone with a compelling personality and a strong message then fame will follow in due course.
As an old friend of Andrew Rosindell, the Conservative MP for Romford, I am sorry that he didn’t make the final cut. It was reported that he had support from several fellow London MPs. An unembarrassed patriot, it is inevitable that if he had been chosen, he would have been sneered at by Leftists who would have caricatured him as a Little Englander or even a racist. Yet he is fantastically knowledgeable about foreign affairs and has a thoroughly global outlook with a particular devotion to the Commonwealth. He has also done far more to champion ethnic minority communities in London than his critics. However, there were lots of other strong candidates who didn’t make the final three – or indeed in the case of Richard Tice – even the final ten. I think the selectors had a genuinely difficult task, and that is a good sign.
Now the decision goes to the Party members in thecCapital. In previous selection battles, a non-member who paid £1 to register could also vote, but that will not be the case this time. I think that’s a pity – but, inevitably, the Labour Party’s experience with Jeremy Corbyn being boosted by entrysists has discouraged champions of widening participation. Anyway, it means that under the three month rule only those London residents who have been Conservative Party members who joined on or before June 26th will be allowed to vote.
The turnout will give an indication of the Party’s fortunes. Last time, around 9,227 people voted and Zac Goldsmith won selection (at the absurdly late stage of October 2015) with 70 per cent of the vote. He won 6,514 votes, Syed Kamall 1,477, Stephen Greenhalgh 864 and Andrew Boff 372. When Boris Johnson was first selected in 2007 as the Conservative candidate for Mayor, the turnout was almost twice as high. He received 15,661 votes, Victoria Borwick 1,869, Andrew Boff 1,674 and Warwick Lightfoot 609.
If the turnout falls again, the gloom will spread. Should it rise – or even stabilise, that will be a bit more cheering. But all this is not just about numbers. It is also about London Conservatives taking the chance to consider what we stand for. As with the Scottish Conservatives we need our own message, our own brand, our own “offer”. Conservatives in Greater London are organised into seven areas and, in early September, each one will have a hustings with our three Mayoral hopefuls. The decision needs to be as much about us as it is about them. It will be a conversation to work out what Londoners’ concerns are and how Conservative principles can be applied to provide the answers.
I suppose Brexit will come up – as it happens, all three on the shortlist voted for it in the referendum. But by 2020 that issue will have been resolved. Other matters will be more pertinent – for instance, the legalisation of cannabis (Andrew Boff is in favour, Shaun Bailey opposed.)
Of course, once the winner is selected as a candidate, then the hard work begins – and whoever that person is will start being denigrated by our opponents. Zac Goldsmith faced two charges. One was the (monstrously unfair) claim that he was anti-Muslim. The second one could hardly be refuted. Zac is very rich. Yet, despite his huge wealth, he was a bit shy about spending much money on his campaign. As noted above, he was already at a disadvantage for being selected so late. Even so, given that he was denounced for having all that money, he might as well have spent a bit of the stuff. Whoever is chosen this time should get cracking on with fundraising, and then start spending the proceeds straight away on campaigning – partly with the aim of raising more money to then do more campaigning: direct mail, social media, local campaign offices. Then there would be those full page advertisements in the Evening Standard, City AM, Metro, the various local papers that still survive…such a campaign would be expensive. But the candidte’s underdog status might have an appeal to the more romantic-minded donors.
There is a paradox that our candidate needs to both boost Conservative support in London but also reach out “beyond the base”. To win, it will be necessary to gain votes (as well as a lot of second preference votes) from those who don’t usually think of themselves as Conservatives. I don’t think that means compromising what we stand for so much as being able to communicate it. On their doorsteps, I have encountered endless Conservatives – at least as defined by their opinion – who just so happen to vote Labour.
But the initial challenge must be to crank up firm Conservative support – including Party membership and the campaigning machine. Our candidate also needs to develop a connection with all those Conservative supporters in Uxbridge, Ruislip, Surbiton, Sidcup, and Upminster who don’t even regard themselves as Londoners, but who must none the less be persuaded to turn out and vote. A rapport has to be built up with all those that our canvassing has already identified as Conservatives in London – asking them to join, to donate, to volunteer to provide their opinions. A thorough effort to engage with them would have to be just the start, but an essential start.
The next stage will be to show an independence of mind to build up a personal vote beyond the Conservative base, while still not only retaining but enthusing those core supporters. This is what Boris Johnson achieved – not that there is much point musing on past triumphs. The candidate needs to do it again in their own way. Good luck to whoever makes it.