Susan Hall’s latest far-fetched attack on Sadiq Khan, a claim that he’s to blame for she and her Oyster card being temporarily parted, is not the cheapest or nastiest she’s come up with so far. But it might be the most revealing both of her shortcomings as a rival to the Labour Mayor and the untethering of London Conservatism from reality.
The Tory challenger’s appearance on Nick Ferrari’s radio show, in which she was the principal cause of her own alleged pickpocketing story unravelling, has already brought joy to satirists across the nation – as if with Rwanda and the Elgin Marbles they weren’t already spoiled for choice. And the mockery Hall has brought upon herself hints at seams of incompetence and denial below the comedy surface that get darker the deeper you dig.
Imagine the sequence of events. Hall approaches the ticket barrier at Pinner, reaches into a recess of her coat – jolly deep pockets, I can tell you Nick – and discovers that her Oyster is not there. So far, so empathetic: millions of us have experienced such jarring, vexing moments, followed by increasingly agitated searching of our clothing and bags, sometimes ending in frustrated mystification. We cast our minds back. When did I last use it? Where could I have mislaid it?
But Hall, being Hall, decides to tell the world she’s been a victim of a crime “in Sadiq Khan’s London”. The Evening Standard is running the “story” by seven o’clock that evening.
Team Ferrari clocks it – wow, guys, lets book a follow up! – and suddenly, there’s Happy Suzie, live on air, screwing everything up by informing her host that, actually, her Oyster had been found and returned, complete with the £40 nestling beside it in its wallet, and the only evidence she can muster to substantiate a claim of theft is that at some point on her journey someone next to her was “fiddling about”.
It makes for strangely compelling listening. I find myself inside Ferrari’s head, trying to process and adjust to the entire premise of this hot little wireless item further disintegrating with every question I ask.
Did it cross his mind to say: “Are you taking the piss?” Did he decide that pretending nothing untoward had happened was the least bad option he had? Or was even so seasoned a broadcaster simply unable to compute that the woman seeking to become the political leader of nine million people was talking the sort of curtain-twitcher cobblers that gets phone-in callers cut off to spare themselves and listeners further punishment?
The challenge with fathoming Hall’s part in the fiasco is greater – a distinctive version of that old problem of deciding whether a politician is dissembling for effect or being peculiarly outraged from the heart.
My suspicion is that, even as she became engulfed by her own implausibility, Hall remained convinced in her own mind that she’d been dipped by a miscreant bent on fraudulently feasting on free public transport (FYI, Hall qualifies). She believes what it suits her to believe, even if the average person would find what she avers a bit of a stretch.
Most of the propaganda her campaign is pumping out – an “extrapolation” of ULEZ income, creative accounting about crime – is likely just the usual sophistry. But Hall’s sticking to her pickpocket story to the end – much as she stuck to Boris Johnson – suggests a mindset impervious to facts or probabilities, or even to that quality she aspires to personifying, “common sense”.
Maybe Hall has such confidence in her own convictions, however publicly self-dismantled, that she has become unreachable. I am inclined to take the more charitable view that she is afflicted by a more general Tory condition whose chief symptom is an unshakeable belief that every Londoner thinks Khan such a proven and irredeemable disaster that the blame for every sort of bad thing that happens in the city can be placed on him with no fear of contradiction.
Examples of this are not hard to find. Successive opinion polls have shown that Londoners’ feelings about the ULEZ are roughly split down the middle, yet the last three have given Khan very big leads. If the ULEZ is so “hated” and “not wanted” as Hall and her media cheerleaders keep insisting is the case, why is she, who has pledged to scrap it, apparently so far behind?
Tory Lord Michael Ashcroft’s commentary on his own, exhaustive London survey repeated the old assertion that Khan’s fares policies have come “at the cost of shredding the TfL budget”. This can be traced back to the early months of Covid, when public transport-use collapsed to almost nothing, taking TfL’s revenue with it.
The then Prime Minister Johnson – that prince among truth-tellers – was at the forefront of maintaining that, because of Khan, TfL’s financial emergency was going to happen anyway. A case can just about be made that without his four-year fare freeze crisis point wouldn’t have been reached for another month, but to pretend the pandemic didn’t devastate the transport body’s entire business plan is to embrace a fantasy.
In fact, Ashcroft’s poll of over 3,400 Londoners provides a wealth of evidence about how Londoners really see their Labour Mayor. Put very simply, they think he’s done OK.
Asked to rank Khan on a scale of zero to 10 in 25 policy areas, they gave him an average score of over five in every case, including those where he has come under pressure, such as the ULEZ, housing and crime. That doesn’t mean they are all huge fans, perhaps especially concerning those issues where Mayors have the strongest formal powers. But, aside from a bedrock minority – presumably the Tory base – Londoners in general seem very far from thinking he’s the “absolute disgrace” Hall would have them believe.
She and fellow Conservatives need to stop believing in the stories they keep telling themselves about Khan. What London Tories should do instead – as some in their ranks have been saying in vain for many years – is to better attune themselves to majority Londoner opinion and produce attractive, credible policies to express them.
Instead, they’re going into the 2024 election with a candidate who inhabits, without apology, that part of today’s Tory spectrum that is perturbingly indistinguishable from the raging dreamworld miserablists of the new nationalist Right and its populist chancer in the jungle, Nigel Farage.
Ashcroft noted of Khan that “even those who think little of his record see him as a decent man”. As voters in this heavily Labour-leaning city get to know Susan Hall better, you wonder what on Earth they might be thinking about her.
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