The first hustings event for the three Conservatives hoping to be their party’s candidate to challenge Labour’s Sadiq Khan as he runs for a third term as London’s Mayor took place on Friday evening.
A gathering of the Tory members in the capital, whose votes will decide the winner of the selection campaign in a month’s time, got their first chance to see Mozammel Hossain, Daniel Korski and Susan Hall in person in the same room at the same time.
They did not, however, see them engage in debate and there was no opportunity to ask them questions. Perhaps those things will happen in other hustings to be held between now and 19 July, the date the result is expected to be be announced.
These continue to be difficult days for Conservatives in London. Theirs has been a story of electoral decline for ten years or more. And although they took control of two councils from Labour at last May’s borough elections, they lost the three London flagships of Barnet, Wandsworth and Westminster and won only 404 of the capital’s 1,817 seats, a net loss of 107 compared to 2018.
Hustings chair Nickie Aiken, a party vice chairman closely involved in drawing up the shortlist, will soon face her own difficult electoral challenge, probably in the second half of next year when Prime Minister Rishi Sunak goes to the country, hoping it will not reject his government in favour of a Labour one. A former leader of Westminster, Aiken is MP for the Cities of London & Westminster constituency, which Labour hopes to remove her from.
For all of that, Aiken and the three mayoral candidates seemed buoyed by a shared disdain for Mayor Khan and the seed of a belief that, against the odds, he can be beaten.
London Tories’ confidence that Khan’s plan to further enlarge London’s Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) to encompass the whole of Greater London is hugely unpopular, especially in outer London, has been demonstrated by their candidate for the Uxbridge & South Ruislip parliamentary by-election saying he intends to make that contest a “referendum” on the ULEZ.
In addition, since the hustings party members might have been cheered by the voting intention figures from Redfield & Wilton’s London poll, released yesterday lunchtime, which gave Khan a clear but not enormous eight-point lead over a theoretical Tory candidate as of this time last week.
That margin might be narrowed once the Conservatives have picked their candidate and he or she has become better known to London’s voters. But if that candidate fails to endear, we could see the opposite effect. Which of the trio will the Tory membership opt for? And will their choice be the most likely of the three to remove Sadiq Khan from City Hall?
Mozammel Hossain, known as “Moz”, was the first of the contestants to take the stage at the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre. The inclusion of the Bangladesh-born criminal barrister and King’s Counsel on the shortlist had been a complete surprise – especially as minister for London and London MP Paul Scully was left off it.
Hossain’s demeanour might have surprised the audience. Gestural and flamboyant with a staccato speaking style and a strong Bangladeshi accent, he was described by one of those present as “camp and showy”. His calling card to that point had been his village upbringing in his country of birth and subsequent rise to the upper end of the legal profession in London. He now lives in Mile End, which he confidingly characterised as “quite rough” before adding “I can’t say that – it’s very charming”. Hossain described himself as “a passionate Remainer” but added, “we can’t debate that anymore”.
Invited by Aiken to make his case to members and to set out his position on policy areas where Mayors have significant powers, Hossain claimed to be the only candidate able to “reach every part of London including those who’ve never voted for us” and declared that Khan would be “petrified” of him. He said that on his first day in office he would call every borough leader and senior police officer in to see him about tackling “neighbourhood crimes” and would cancel Khan’s ULEZ. He also said he would freeze the Mayor’s share of council tax.
Hossain told Aiken he would make housing more affordable by building homes on land owned by Transport for London, retaining the freehold. This is a policy Khan has being pursuing throughout his seven years at City Hall, adapting an initiative he inherited from Boris Johnson. However, Hossain appeared to propose additional building above Tube stations. “Most of the Underground, it’s not underground, it’s overground,” he said. “So we’ll build over, we’ll cut and cover“.
Daniel Korski, (pictured) a businessman who has previously been a journalist and was a Number 10 policy adviser to David Cameron, came across as confident and energetic with a well-organised, upbeat pitch for reviving what he called “the London dream” of a city that provides opportunities for people to fulfil their ambitions. Danish-born to Jewish refugees from Poland, Korski described coming to London “with a great desire to learn what was at the time the Queen’s English,” self-deprecatingly suggesting that his accent suggested he had failed.
In his campaign video he says: “I may not sound like a traditional Conservative. I may not look like one. I look like what I am. A digital native. An entrepreneur, an immigrant, a 21st Century Londoner. A Conservative who can win in London.” Eager to assure his audience of his Tory credentials, he said he had a “business plan” to make London “faster, smarter, safer, greener, the kind of city where everybody can afford a home and where everybody can walk home safely at night”.
Like Hossain, Korski said he would immediately cancel the ULEZ extension and specified Met Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley as the senior officer he would call in one his first day. As Mayor, Korski said he would want “more police officers on the street” under a “community-based approach” and “recruit people from adjacent disciplines” such as the military or the NHS under a “direct entry” approach.
On housing, Korski said increasing supply was the answer to increasing affordability but, significantly, stated that this should be concentrated in “inner and central London where young people would like to live, where higher density is more acceptable”. He spoke of an area he called “the Docklands arc” stretching “from Hackney to Canary Wharf”, describing it as comprising “largely low rise social housing and where the council, the Hackney Council, has been really reluctant to do any kind of development. I think we could probably build something like 100,000 homes just in that area.”
The third candidate to appear was Susan Hall, a long-serving Harrow councillor and a member of the London Assembly since 2017, succeeding Kemi Badenoch after she became an MP. In her campaign video Hall makes much of the fact that she is the only candidate with electoral and City Hall experience and claims to have got the measure of Khan in their scrutiny exchanges.
When speaking to Aiken, she referred frequently to years of door-knocking and leafletting and made direct overtures to fellow activists in the audience. “It wouldn’t be I who would beat Khan, it would be we who would beat Khan,” she told them. She also described Margaret Thatcher as a “great role model”.
Like the other candidates she pledged to immediately undo the planned latest ULEZ expansion, but “wouldn’t cut the inner London one”. Better, she argued, to concentrate on air pollution “hot spots” in outer London. “It could be that there are several buses that could be electrified,” she said. “I know it’s expensive but there are budgets there to do it.”
On policing, Hall criticised Rowley, saying “he doesn’t know where all the police officers are…no wonder we’re in such a state”, and promised that if she became Mayor she would “put in a special unit in each of the BCUs [basic command units] to specifically look at burglaries and theft etcetera”. She also said she would invest in metal-detecting wands to make stop-and-search “less intrusive”.
On housing affordability, Hall said, “It’s a simply case of demand and supply – if there’s not enough supply, prices are going to rise, and that’s what’s happened”. She said she opposes “these wretched high rise one and two bedroom flats” and called them “just awful”. She continued: “I’m a supporter of high density housing, but low rise. If someone can have a front door and a little postage stamp of a garden, then that’s fine, they can bring their family up there.”
Perhaps inevitably, given the nature of the occasion and the political character of the audience, the massive social and economic shocks London and its economy have been struggling with were barely mentioned during the event.
Hossain made the only explicit mention of Brexit, though Korski, who has said elsewhere he voted Remain, might have had it in mind when noting in passing that increasing housebuilding would have to take place “in a context where a lot of labour has withdrawn”. The Covid pandemic wasn’t even alluded to. The unstated golden rule of this initial beauty contest was that blame for all the city’s current ills should be heaped on the current Mayor.
It was hard to know what to make of Hossain, and perhaps the Tory audience felt the same way. Maybe his novelty will be an asset in the short-term, enabling him to get more attention for any more fully-formed and distinctive ideas he might offer before voting gets underway. But it is difficult to imagine him winning.
Korski was the most original of the three. He was the only candidate who offered a hint of criticism of the London Conservative mindset and the prospect of a refreshment of the Tory brand in a city whose voters have been turning against it. He didn’t mention his interest in “smart” road-user pricing, which was arguably just as well given the visceral opposition of many Tories to any form of it, even though the ULEZ originated with the former Mayor Johnson.
It would be useful to have more detail about his “Docklands arc” housing vision. London’s boroughs, including Tory ones, might give short shrift to his suggestion that his City Hall would be a “good practice” financial efficiency model for them to follow, having endured a 13-year government funding squeeze since Korski’s old boss David Cameron became Prime Minister in 2010.
As for Hall, there are good reasons for thinking she is the frontrunner. She told activists things they wanted to hear, pointing out that the Met has more “frontline” officers than ever before, but not that Khan has boosted Met funding through council tax hikes she has opposed. She claimed Khan has “been having trouble spending” the money he has secured from the government to help fund affordable housing, yet only last month he announced that he has hit the target the government set for him.
Hall also said Khan is “very unpopular at the moment”, an assertion that looks optimistic given that Redfield & Wilton’s London poll, conducted a week ago, found that 51 per cent of Londoners regard him as having been a good Mayor and that 41 per cent of them intend to vote for him next year, compared to 33 per cent who say they will vote Tory.
Her crowd-pleasing assertions will do Hall no harm as she seeks the candidacy, but it isn’t clear how she would appeal beyond the Tory core, except to however many Labour supporters prepared to abandon Khan over the ULEZ there actually are. Her months of conspicuous loyalty to Boris Johnson – who wrote two books during his time as London’s Mayor, neither of them related to the responsibilities of his office, and also engaged in an extra-marital affair on the side – and her enthusiasm for Brexit would be tempting targets for the Khan campaign.
Tory activists should, perhaps, reflect that grassroots enthusiasm for Johnson, and then for Liz Truss, has led to disgrace, economic mayhem and the prospect of electoral doom for the Tories nationally. Those drawn to backing Hall might enjoy her contempt for Khan, but could do worse than ask themselves if she is the would-be candidate most likely to defeat him.
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