The last London Mayoral election was a sprint for the Conservative candidate. The selection took place in the aftermath of the 2015 election. There was less than a year between its start and polling day. David Cameron and CCHQ had been consumed by the national poll and little thought had been concentrated on the Mayoral contest. The party hierarchy wanted Zac Goldsmith, but projected little sense of commitment; rather, one of faute de mieux.
By contrast, this contest will be a marathon for whichever one of Sean Bailey, Andrew Boff or Joy Morrissey emerges blinking at October’s Party Conference as the Tory nominee. The election won’t take place for another 18 months. Days, weeks and, yes, those months of arduous campaigning will stretch out before the winner. By polling day, he or she will be well and truly knackered. Prepare for the loneliness of the long-distance candidate.
That should send a message to Party members as we vote. What we think are the most urgent issues for London now may not be so come the spring of 2020. Yes, would be astonishing were knives, gang crime and violence not one of them. But the contest may not be the referendum on the issue that some Conservative strategists and campaigners believe. In eighteen months time, the capital, like the rest of the country, will have been through the known unknown of Brexit…and goodness knows what unknown unknowns, too.
Which is a reminder that the Tory nominee will face three big challenges before even getting started. The first is that London is not only a Remain city (with exceptions on its western, southern and eastern edges) but a Labour one (with exceptions in much the same places, plus a blue enclave up Barnet-way, a Conservative corridor through Sutton & Cheam to the City of London & Westminster, and the yellow seats in the south-west).
Boris Johnson’s Olympics-reinforced, pre-referendum appeal held the red tide back, but that takes me to the second challenge. None of the three Conservative contenders for the mayoral nomination have anything like the same projection as he did. Not to put too fine a point on it, not enough Londoners know who they are. Downing Street and CCHQ’s hope is that this will change over the coming 18 months. Some party members will none the less prefer any of three to a celebrity outsider, taking comfort in the truth that all three are One of Us.
Finally, there is the heart of the matter. I feel reasonably well-briefed about politics in London. But in common, I suspect, with many other party members, let alone political journalists, I would struggle to describe with complete accuracy where the Mayor’s powers begin and those of central Government and the London boroughs end. This palimpsest map of responsibilities – like the bigger national patchwork of local authorities, mayors, police commissioners, city regions, and so on – flummoxes voters and helps the incumbent.
Who, in the form of Sadiq Khan, isn’t hard to read. The Mayor is a classic machine politician who got out of the Commons because he believed Labour might not win in 2020, and that running the capital, the biggest job in local government in the country, might set him up for a return to Parliament for 2024 and a tilt at the Labour leadership. Corbyn’s surprise gains in last year’s surprise election chucked not so much a spanner as an entire toolbox at this timetable.
So now Khan is hanging about City Hall, waiting for something to turn up. That he has broken just about every promise he made in 2016 has passed most Londoners by. Many of them may not care. But Khan is an strangely immobile figure for such an ambitious man. Over Grenfell and on knife crime, he showed the same unfleetness of foot and lack of emotional adaptability as, frankly, some Government Ministers. In a just world, he would be pitched out of office to spend more time with his leadership aspirations.
Who is best placed to attempt it? Joy Morrissey stresses affordable housing – proposing “a new model – one which will offer more social and private rented accommodation, with greater security of tenure”. She has a slice of Tory MP backers, especially among women, plus three council leaders. Shaun Bailey has the most declared support of any of the three, stretching from Michael Gove through seven council leaders through four police commissioners to…George Osborne. I hear the sound of a rolling bandwagon.
Bailey was seized relatively early by the “surge in violent crime since the beginning of [Khan’s] mayoralty” – setting out policy solutions on this site, too: “better community engagement, better use of stop and search, and providing preventative initiatives” and “the use of emerging technologies – the world is changing, we now have voice-activated smart homes run by Alexa, augmented reality and 3D printers”. If the elections were to turn into a referendum on crime, one can easily see how Bailey would front it.
Last time round, I watched the candidates debate. Afterwards, I was “seized by a compulsive desire to see [Andrew Boff] as Mayor of London”. My heart said Boff; my head said Goldsmith – and for better or worse I went with the latter. This time round, both agree, and I have already voted – for Boff. Of all the candidates, his Twitter feed has the most policy. Indeed, he has an entire manifesto. He knows more about London than I will ever forget. Sometimes I suspect that he knows even more about it than Peter Ackroyd.
You may counter that he tweets more policy than the other candidates because he has fewer endorsements. Perhaps the London councillor circuit knows something I don’t. None the less the manifesto is impressive: look at the detail on air quality, or the range on devolution. Not that Boff is an introverted policy wonk; he has a forceful campaigning presence. I like to think that his quirky style could cut through with London voters.
Mind you, any of the three would be a breath of fresh air. Think about it this way. During a second term, Khan would have one eye on London, and the other on Labour, and what’s happening to that party at the top. He will already be thinking about 2024. Wouldn’t London do better with a Mayor whose gaze is fixed on the job and no other? Whose ambitions and aspirations are bound up with City Hall, the capital – and nowhere else?