Conservative party members in the capital are today starting to vote for a candidate to challenge Labour incumbent Sadiq Khan next May. It goes without saying that the Tory selection process has not gone smoothly: there was shock and consternation that Paul Scully, a London MP and, of all things, the minister for London was left off the shortlist of three; then came the withdrawal from the contest of former David Cameron Number 10 aide Daniel Korski in contested circumstances that can’t have enhanced the Tory brand.
With the barely-known criminal barrister Mozammel Hossain, mocked by some as “Mystery Moz”, her sole remaining rival, London Assembly member Susan Hall is the undisputed favourite now. At Conservative Home, pollster James Johnson has urged London Tories to pick Hossain, citing his company’s own research to argue that the Remain-voting outsider stands the better chance of beating Khan. It is, though, difficult to see that happening.
Hall, who is also a Harrow councillor, has a grassroots-pleasing media profile thanks to her strident Twitter output and frequent Khan-bashing appearances on right-wing television channels. She speaks the language of many Tory activists. Unlike Hossain, she also has considerable political and electoral experience, and has been telling the selectorate that Khan fears her. It is easy to imagine that assertion playing well with Tory members. But is it true?
Hall’s problem is and was always going to be that she can be easily depicted by political opponents as hostile to most Londoners’ values and as extreme. Pro-Brexit in a city where 60 per cent voted Remain and Labour’s domination in recent elections has increased, she advertised her loyalty to Boris Johnson throughout “partygate” and beyond, only removing a photo of herself standing with the disgraced now-former PM from her Twitter profile once she’d decided to make a pitch for City Hall.
Fellow journalists and others have already been having fun excavating her Twitter history, with its insults aimed at reality TV performers, encouragement for Donald Trump – who eagerly attacked Khan, the first Muslim mayor of a major western city, as a way to fire up his voter base at home – and approving retweets of the culture war provocations of such as Lawrence Fox, Suella Braverman and Lee Anderson. There are suspicions that Hall’s social media presence also takes other, less direct and still more outspoken forms.
Yesterday, she received the backing of her predecessor on the Assembly, cabinet minister Kemi Badenoch, Braverman’s fellow darling of the Tory outer-right. It is interesting to consider who might be the more pleased by Badenoch’s enthusiasm for Hall – Hall herself or Khan.
Other Hall supporters include Greg Smith MP, a former deputy leader of Hammersmith & Fulham Council when it was led by Johnson ally Stephen Greenhalgh. Smith was a co-founder of the Young Britons’ Foundation, an organisation with many admirers on the Tory right set up in 2003 to train potential Tory candidates. Chipping Barnet MP Theresa Villiers, who recently called for national government to take powers to veto mayoral transport policies, is also backing Hall.
London Labour will have long since furnished its election armoury with choice examples of Hall’s enthusiasm for attitudes and individuals aligned with the solidifying New Conservatives or National Conservatism strands of Tory sentiment, much of it hostile to an idea of London personified by Khan, a liberal concerned about air quality and climate change and a two-time mayoral election winner in his home city. Expect a loud opening barrage if and when Hall is named as her party’s candidate on 19 July.
Hall’s campaigning so far has has been squarely targeted at what she considers to be Khan’s weak spots, primarily policing and crime and his planned further expansion of the Ultra-Low Emission Zone (which is subject to a two-day judicial review, starting today). Those issues are conducive to clear and sustained messaging, and Hall’s conviction is not in question.
Being a suburban woman who claims to have a firm grasp of “common sense” would make Hall a different proposition for Khan than his previous two mayoral race opponents, but her ultra-orthodox, right-populist stance would make her straightforwardly vulnerable too. If she became the candidate, would she be able to make erstwhile Labour voters warm to her? Could the “Boris” fan emulate her hero and win against odds that look more ominous than he ever faced?