The outcome of the general election was a triumph for the Conservative Party nationally, but that was no thanks to its performance in London. While Boris Johnson, a former London Mayor, was storming Labour strongholds in the Midlands and the North, the Tories in the capital made no seat gains overall and actually lost a bit of vote share compared with 2017. In last year’s borough elections they lost yet more ground to Labour, despite help from the more poisonous elements of Corbynism. They will enter the New Year with their London Mayor candidate Shaun Bailey miles behind Sadiq Khan according to every poll conducted in 2019 and also facing a former Conservative government minister, Rory Stewart, running as an Independent, who will surely attract Tory supporters.
For some time, there has been talk of the need for a distinctive London Conservative identity to help the party combat Labour’s political domination of the city. What happened to that? In an article for Conservative Home, Susan Hall, the new leader of the Tories’ London Assembly Group, sets out what she calls a “positive and progressive alternative to Labour-run London”. It is hard to see how either adjective is justified, or how what Hall proposes is going to help Bailey build his challenge to Khan into a credible or exciting one.
Ever since September 2018, when he became his party’s mayoral candidate, Bailey has hammered doggedly away at Khan about violent youth crime, trading heavily on his youth worker past. Hall’s article restates the claim that Khan has been “complacent” on the issue, spending money on staff and public relations that ought to have been diverted to putting more “bobbies on the beat”.
Is this really the best London Tories can do? Their argument is thin at every level. Khan’s defence would be that he has earmarked nearly £300 million to the Met’s budget in the past two years, largely derived from business rates, and the polling evidence is that Londoners tend to agree with the Mayor that government spending cuts have been primarily responsible for the rise in violent crime. Yet Hall continues to demean Khan’s requests for further government funds as “bringing out the begging bowl”. Are London Tories against lobbying national government for more funds? And there are good reasons to question whether more “bobbies on the beat” would actually make much difference, especially because dealing with the most rapidly-rising serious crimes may require more resources being invested in different kinds of police officers and other staff.
London Mayors should neither hog the credit when crime rates fall nor take all the blame when they rise – it is obvious to anyone who gives the matter any thought that crime rates change for a whole array of reasons beyond City Hall’s immediate control. The least the capital’s main party of opposition should do is recognise this truth and offer policies accordingly. That should include a prospective Tory Mayor insisting he would ensure that the Met is deploying its current resources to best effect and making the case that a Tory London Mayor would be more likely to get the help it needs from a Tory government than a Labour Mayor would. Instead, they’re evoking Dixon of Dock Green while (still) sticking up for austerity.
Hall criticises Khan for the rate of housebuilding in London relative to demand, though it has long been the case that annual completions fall well short of mayoral targets. She seems to agree with Khan that the Green Belt must be sacred, even though national government inspectors advised him in the autumn to undertake a full London-wide review of it.
She seems on stronger ground when arguing that Khan’s four-year freeze on Transport for London fares means that important service upgrades have not been advanced: Bailey has already said he would hike fares and Khan has yet to rule out doing the same. Hall’s argument that Khan’s proposed future expansion of the Ultra Low Emission Zone should be scrapped and money spent instead on making London’s bus fleet cleaner is an interesting one, at least on the face of it.
This is framed in terms of helping working-class voters, and perhaps it will have purchase among car owners and small traders in some parts of Outer London where Tory support is strong. There is, however, nothing in Hall’s piece to suggest London’s Tories are any nearer formulating a policy programme for London that is likely to enthuse Londoners who don’t normally vote Conservative. That, and the difficulty Bailey has so far had with establishing his leadership credentials, suggest the Tories are going to struggle to trouble Khan come the election on 7 May next year.
This is not a good thing for the capital or for the UK, especially as the post-Brexit future nears. Bailey and his fellow Assembly Tories, all of whom favour leaving the European Union, have repeatedly rebuked Khan, who is strongly pro-Remain in a pro-Remain city, for talking a lot about Brexit, even though he has no formal powers over the issue. Yet London’s importance to the UK as a whole might well increase if Brexit harms the economy as predicted, even as the former Mayor who is now Prime Minister promises to make other parts of the country his priority.
London Tories surely know as well as anyone that, whatever Johnson says, Brexit will not be “done” on 31st January 2020 and that a “positive and progressive” strengthening of London will be vital to the nation’s uncertain future. It might be that a second Khan mayoral term is unstoppable, but the Conservatives should at least make a bold, ambitious fight of it, providing a big picture of how the city might evolve in which Tory beliefs and London values are reconciled and persuasively expressed. There is little sign so far that they have either the imagination or the inclination to do the work required.
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