Who loves Susan Hall? Nearly three weeks have passed since the Conservative candidate for London Mayor remarked of Jewish Londoners: “I know how frightened some of the community is because of the divisive attitude of Sadiq Khan.”
She later told her nodding dog admirers at GB News that she’d actually been talking about crime, rather than disgracefully implying that the Labour Mayor, a Muslim, creates fear among Jews.
I find it hard to judge whether Hall’s remark was drawn from some stagnant well of prejudice or should more charitably be seen as inept and ignorant – the Board of Deputies of British Jews quickly reminded us that Khan has a long record of demonstrating exemplary support for London’s Jews.
Hall continues to enjoy the support of hard-right media, whose loathing for Khan is such that they will excuse anything she does or says. But how much enthusiasm is there for her among her fellow London Conservatives?
Hall’s now notorious gaffe took place on 2 October, the Monday of the Tory conference. The day before it, Tory chairman Greg Hands, MP for Chelsea & Fulham, described Hall as “brilliant”. Two days after it, Rishi Sunak said in his big speech that she was doing a “great job”.
Perhaps Sunak didn’t know his London candidate had put her foot in it, given the chaos all around him at the time. Whatever, neither he nor Hands have spoken up for Hall since, and, unless you count a snapshot taken with Theresa May, public endorsements by any senior Tory have been scarce.
Hands has found time during by-election campaigns elsewhere to criticise Khan on X/Twitter over bus services and crime, but not to say how marvellous “Suzie” is. Hall’s own X/Twitter feed has featured pictures of Tory activists in Hendon, the West Central London Assembly constituency and Brent, but no re-posts of backing from big names.
Meanwhile, the London government grapevine quietly hums with Conservative discontent. A lack of enthusiasm for Hall is reported among the capital’s handful of Tory borough leaders. And who can blame them? Even if they believe she can defeat Khan next May, why would they risk associating themselves with potential deep embarrassment? Prior to the conference, minister for London Paul Scully, despite having been inexplicably passed over at the candidate shortlisting stage, weighed in behind Hall on social media, but hasn’t done so since.
Hall’s campaign will also need financial backing. Where is that going to come from if the usual election donor family is as unimpressed as her weightier London political peers seem to be? And if it comes, as some conjecture, from the sorts of individuals who bankrolled Brexit, what will that say about Hall to the majority Remain London electorate?
From the start, there has been a narrow path to victory for Hall, notwithstanding the Tories’ troubles in the capital: it is never easy for an incumbent to win a third term, as Khan hopes to do; Hall has obvious targets to aim at, notably policing and crime; many Londoners are more socially conservative then is widely assumed and might be receptive to a Tory who speaks of “bread and butter” and “common sense”; political analysts have rightly concluded from the Tories’ hammerings in Tamworth and Mid-Bedfordshire that July’s narrow escape in Uxbridge was no bellwether for the national mood, but the ULEZ issue, albeit overstated, will mobilise a minority.
Hall has been working to dispel any unfortunate impression that she’s a Katie Hopkins-loving, Enoch Powell-fancying, Muslim-baiting radical right fanatic. At the last Mayor’s Question Time, she professed concern about Muslim Londoners in the context of the Israel Gaza war and has assured the London Chamber of Commerce & Industry that she admires Khan’s fortitude in the face of threats and anti-Muslim abuse.
All that said, she may be struggling at this stage to overcome the in-built disadvantage any Tory mayoral hopeful would have in the Labour-leaning capital. She has declined to apologise for a lurid back catalogue of “likes” and remarks the Khan campaign will take full advantage of. And the more Khan shines as a sympathetic, unifying figure at a time of bitter foreign war, the more ill-judged appears her calling him “divisive”.
There will be new opinion polls and more events to shape the mayoral arena. The picture of the race is not yet clear. At this early stage, though, Susan Hall may have made the job of looking like a credible or suitable challenger for City Hall more difficult for herself – not least with her own side.