London Tories name their mayoral candidate shortlist. Why we should care.

by Dave Hill

The Conservatives have drawn up a shortlist of three candidates to be their challenger to Sadiq Khan in the 2020 London Mayor election. A longlist of 10 was whittled down following interviews yesterday and party members in London will choose between London Assembly Members Shaun Bailey and Andrew Boff and Ealing councillor Joy Morrissey to lead their bid to recapture City Hall.

Let’s get the statements of the obvious out of the way: none of the trio are big names and whichever of them prevails is going to start as an outsider against Khan. But dismissing the Conservative line-up as irrelevant no-hopers will not do. It will be bad for the city if Mayor Khan strolls to a second term with no credible and testing opposition. Providing that should be the Tories’ first priority, for their own good as much as London’s. Whoever becomes the party’s candidate will have a serious job to do and what they offer should be taken seriously.

Part of that person’s task will be repairing the damage done to the Tories’ reputation by their repulsive campaign two years ago. Run by Lynton Crosby’s organisation, specialists in fear-mongering negativity, it tried – and miserably failed – to turn anxiety about Muslim extremism to electoral advantage by feeding smear stories about Khan to Tory press supporters.

The Conservatives might have done less badly had they kept their sewage to themselves. Their candidate Zac Goldsmith, who did himself no favours by stubbornly defending the tactics used on his behalf, several times showed himself a match for candidate Khan when it came to debating policy approaches to the core mayoral responsibilities of transport, housing, planning and policing. Had the Tories fought the election solely on that ground, Goldsmith might at least have lost with honour and left a post-Boris Johnson legacy that could have been built on.

Instead, his successor will have the task of restoring the party’s fortunes in the capital pretty much from the ground up. The selection process so far suggests that the Tories’ London operation is very aware of this. Revealing the longlist last week, Conservative Home reported that “the party is keen to note the diversity of the longlisted candidates, stating that 80 per cent are from a state-school background, 40 per cent are women and 40 per cent are black Asian and minority ethnic candidates.” A final three comprising one black male, one gay male and one female seems to confirm a desire to consign to history the calamity of 2016 and all it was taken to reveal about Conservatism’s bedrock character.

However, as Daniel Moylan has argued, there must be much more to the Tory mayoral bid than an appearance of alignment with London’s liberal social values and demographic diversity. There also need to be distinctive and distinctively Conservative approaches to the key areas of mayoral power and influence, to City Hall’s relationship with London’s boroughs and with national government, and to the implications for the city of Brexit. All of this needs to be woven into a compelling story which the candidate can tell persuasively and be seen to personify – no simple task, but the minimum requirement if Mayor Khan’s dominance is to be significantly dented.

Which of the three runners will do this best? Bailey, two years an AM, is often eloquent on youth crime but may need to demonstrate to the Tory selectorate that there is more to him than that. Boff, a contributor to this website, has long and varied experience in London government and a set of ideas that fit together philosophically. For him, the main challenge might be convincing grassroots Tories that his libertarian views will look convincing when exposed to mainstream scrutiny. Morrissey, being the least well-known of the three, will probably have the most difficulty standing out. She has stressed a need for a social justice message and that a “core vote” strategy won’t be enough. Perhaps these arguments can help her make an impact.

On London will give closer attention to the three Tory hopefuls in the weeks to come as each sets out their stall in more detail. In the meantime, take a look at how Bailey, Boff and Morrissey answered questions from Conservative Home and the list of policy proposals Boff provided here.

BREXIT DEBATE: Will leaving the EU be good or bad for the capital? On London and the illustrious London Society have jointly organised a debate about this crucial question, featuring anti-Brexit campaigner Andrew Adonis and former Boris Johnson adviser Daniel Moylan. Buy your tickets here

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