Sadiq Khan will probably win next year’s mayoral election, but a surprise triumph for Susan Hall can’t be ruled out. Her current odds of 5/1 feel too short – an overreaction to Uxbridge, maybe – but were I into betting, the 7/1 of a few weeks back might have appealed. The Tory candidate is, for now, best known for insulting a reality TV contestant, for backing Brexit, for egging on Donald Trump, and for an unflattering Evening Standard front page photo. She represents a party that has been losing ground in London for years. But even so…
Hall has some big, clear themes to work with. The ULEZ expansion furore will fade, but a follow-up attack line about a larger road user charging “plot” is already in formation, and she will do all she can to stoke disquiet about the Met and crime. On housing and planning, expect Hall to be strident, in line with Michael Gove, about protecting the Tory suburbs from development, especially in the form of tower blocks.
Her “war on woke” positions will find an audience too: there are more Londoners with socially conservative values than widely thought, including among groups with whom the Tories have been making progress. Indian Londoners, for example, have become more receptive to the party, as Bob Blackman MP has shown in Harrow East. Hindu mistrust of a Muslim candidate informed Zac Goldsmith’s notorious “tax your jewellery” ploy against Khan in 2016. It was crass and pathetic but it might have struck a chord.
All of the above suggest that Hall, a long-serving Harrow councillor, will attempt to revive the 2008 Boris Johnson “doughnut strategy”, which zoomed in on a range of outer London discontents. That would be logical. But it won’t be enough.
For one thing, the doughnut isn’t as blue as it was, with Labour taking power in once marginal boroughs and eroding long-time Tory strongholds. For another, Hall isn’t Johnson, possessing neither his celebrity nor what was seen back then as his raffish, anti-politician charm, which transcended party lines. An aggressively negative core vote strategy might help salvage a less than crushing defeat for Hall. But if she and her party are serious about winning, they will need to reach beyond an aggrieved, anxious but shrunken Tory base. What options do they have?
Being a woman makes Hall a novel runner for a major party in a London mayoral race. She will surely make the most of that, playing the practical female “common sense” card and in so doing hoping to give Khan a novel problem. Her public manner might need working on, though: it’s one thing to go on Talk TV and agree with a like-minded presenter that Khan’s “an absolute disgrace”, but it’s another not to appear more Mrs Slocombe than Mrs Thatcher to the mainstream.
Were I advising her – something as likely to happen as Rishi Sunak revealing that he’s actually been Britney Spears all along – I would suggest some judicious distancing from Tory national policies. Hall rails against Khan blaming the government for his and London’s problems. But while this can be repetitive, it’s also true: a new Institute for Fiscal Studies report showing that London’s local authorities have been discriminated against, along with cities generally, in favour of Tory areas is just the latest evidence of the capital and its people taking second place, certainly since the 2019 general election.
Is Hall prepared to put the city she aspires to lead before the discredited party to which she has been so visibly loyal throughout its 13 years of selling London short? A less deferential tone might strain credulity, especially in view of her stubborn apologism for the excesses of “Boris”. But a credible would-be London Mayor must be willing to speak up for London when it is being done down by Whitehall and Number 10. Like Khan, Hall should make clear that London needs more money for affordable housing and the Met, and a proper long-term funding deal for Transport for London. If nothing else, breaking rank with Sunak’s wounded, London-slighting regime would help her get a hearing.
The Tories’ unpopularity is a huge problem for Hall, but Londoners have shown before that they can ditch party loyalties when deciding who to support for Mayor: Johnson easily outpolled his party in London elections (the “Boris bonus”) and Ken Livingstone both triumphed as an independent and slipped behind Labour in terms of first preference votes in 2012. Khan will have to combat voter fatigue with him – he’s seeking a third term following a second that has been hard going. Tory claims that he is wildly unpopular strike me as attempts to keep their spirits up, but some Labour supporters might be disillusioned or apathetic.
If Hall can combine revving up what survives of hardcore Tory outer London with converting or suppressing parts of Labour’s London coalition, she will be in the game. It won’t be easy for her, though, so staunch has been her backing for her party nationally and so stereotypically a suburban Tory does she appear. The Conservatives in London are conducting a review of their operation in the capital. It will be interesting to see if and how it influences Hall’s campaign.