London’s Conservatives, a beleaguered bunch of late, have begun voting in the election to choose their mayoral candidate for May 2020. The consensus seems to be that Shaun Bailey, a London Assembly Member since 2016 and a former parliamentary candidate, is in the lead. Coverage of Bailey’s campaign in the London Evening Standard suggests that Tory establishment figures think he should be the one to challenge Sadiq Khan. Rank and file members tempted to follow this lead might like to ask themselves if they’d prefer to see a future candidate Bailey devoured by the Khan machine for breakfast, for lunch or for tea.
Fair play to Bailey, he has often in the past talked a good line on his specialist subject of youth crime, sometimes making points – about machismo in black youth culture and the advantages that charities can sometimes have compared with state agencies, for example – that politicians of the Left are wary of addressing. But his then fashionably reactionary views on social issues in general might come back to haunt him. And in the nearly ten years since he emerged as a high profile example of what was touted as a new, more inclusive and morally-engaged Conservatism under David Cameron, he has failed to grow into the credible London politician he would need to be to improve Tory fortunes in the capital.
In 2010, he fought a petty, negative and unsuccessful general election campaign against Labour’s Andy Slaughter in Hammersmith, in which he came across as flashy and inauthentic rather than the beacon of grounded street savvy he was touted as being. Parts of the backstory voters were asked to admire did not add up convincingly, strengthening the impression that he was more confection than real deal.
That was eight years ago, but has there been a change for the better? At Mayor’s Question Time last week, Bailey attempted to embarrass the Mayor over knife crime, but ended up looking callow and inconsistent (see webcast from 1 hr 20 mins). Khan has shown himself to be a supple, astute not to say ruthless election campaigner, including against negative tactics. Recent moves by him on an EU “People’s Vote”, on Standard editor George Osborne’s central role in cuts to public spending when he was Tory chancellor and, yes, on violent youth crime, suggest that his team has got Bailey’s number already and would relish him being installed as their opponent.
London’s Tories should look elsewhere as they cast their votes. Either of the two other names on the shortlist, Andrew Boff and Joy Morrissey, would be stronger challengers. Boff, who, unlike Bailey, has great experience in London government including at City Hall, is regarded by some Tories as a libertarian eccentric with unnervingly liberal views on issues such as sex workers and drug legalisation and wild blue sky ideas about expanding London’s influence into the Home Counties.
They should not dismiss him so quickly. That is not simply because Boff is willing to make bold social policy proposals the cautious Khan won’t go near that might appeal to some Londoners who don’t normally vote Tory. It is also because the pieces of his Big Picture of how London should change do fit together, albeit some of them are unorthodox. He is a conviction politician in the best sense, one who would fight his own fight with feeling and would know how to put Khan under pressure.
Morrissey, an Ealing councillor and the least well-known of the shortlisted trio, has been picking up useful endorsements from different sections of her party, ranging from frontline Brexiter Priti Patel to Hillingdon leader Ray Puddifoot to former mayoral candidate Steve Norris. It is said that she did not expect to get into the final three and therefore entered the selection race from a standing start. If so, she appears to have gained ground effectively.
Interviewed by On London very early in the contest, she demonstrated a good grasp of issues ranging from housing, to air quality to gang crime and the seeds of constructive ideas about how to address them. The Tories badly need some positive and practical policies going into the mayoral campaign. Morrissey might be the best bet to provide them. The very fact of being a female candidate seemingly emerging out of nowhere might assist her too.
As Philip Cowley has explained, Mayor Khan has lost a lot of popularity in recent months, yet as the Labour candidate he remains a strong favourite to win a second term. Tweets coming out of the three would-be Tory challengers have not, to generalise, been very inspiring, though maybe weary bromides about cutting “waste” and getting “tough” on crime or conjuring that fantasy union-crushing chariot the “driverless” Tube train still excite the membership. Whoever the candidate is will need to do a lot more if they are to help to build the distinctive Tory London identity their party appears to need. With such considerations in mind, were I a Tory member I would be making a hard choice between Boff and Morrissey.