Who will the Conservatives pick to run against Sadiq Khan and how would they beat him?

Who will the Conservatives pick to run against Sadiq Khan and how would they beat him?

Now and again I try to imagine what a serious and honest Conservative candidate for Mayor of London could offer the capital’s electorate that stood a chance of putting him or her into City Hall.

Bear in mind that Tory fortunes in the city have been on the slide for at least ten years and that the party’s most conspicuous victories in recent times have been at the mayoral elections of 2008 and 2012, when their winner was the since-disgraced now former Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

A shortlist of, reportedly, two or three hopefuls will soon be drawn up from which Tory members in London will choose their candidate to challenge Sadiq Khan next May. What should the party be looking for? And which of the hopefuls known to have put their name forward are likely to make it on to the membership’s ballot paper?

Conservative Home has listed nine people it is sure have entered the selection contest, noting that there could be others who’ve kept it quiet.

A general lesson from the past, which does not apply only to Tories, is that some people who express and even pursue mayoral aspirations do so in the knowledge that their chances of fulfilling them are slim to non-existent and are primarily seeking publicity, touting for business, hoping for a job offer or all three. I will let readers judge if any of the Tory applicants fits that description.

What do we know about the line-up so far?

Only two have senior experience in London government and of working at City Hall: London Assembly colleagues Andrew Boff, a former leader of Hillingdon, and Susan Hall, a former leader of Harrow. London MP Paul Scully, who has represented Sutton & Cheam since 2015, can also claim hands-on knowledge of the city’s political workings, having been his party’s vice-chair for London from 2017 to 2019 and minister for London since 2020.

Boff has sought the Tory nomination five times before, offering distinctively libertarian and localist positions on everything from housing and governance to street prostitution and cannabis. His policy ideas, whether you agree them or not, possess an internal consistency and potential appeal to a centre ground he knows his party must inhabit if it is to enjoy a London revival. His Twitter profile used to quip that he was “probably more liberal than you are”. He has nicknamed himself “Boff the Builder”.

Hall is on the populist hard right of her party, as is evident from what she considers to be her “common sense” attitudes to her support for Johnson throughout “partygate” and after his removal from Number 10 by Tory MPs. Strident on Twitter, she makes no secret of her admiration for such as Suella Braverman and Lee Anderson and for fringe television channels GB News and Talk TV, on which she frequently appears. Hall is in the habit of calling Mayor Khan “a disgrace”.

Scully has been portraying himself as “a doer” – a practical politician who has handled various ministerial responsibilities. Having taken his parliamentary seat from the Liberal Democrats and twice defended it, he has tasted victory in London but, through his involvement in the Tories’ 2018 borough elections campaign, has also felt Labour’s strengthening grip on the city. Conservative Home regards him as “probably the front-runner”.

Another applicant who’s made a media mark despite being a councillor outside the capital is Samuel Kasumu, who was a special adviser to PM Johnson and resigned from the role in April 2021. He later criticised some in the government for using “culture war” tactics to “exploit division”. Kasumu declared his interest in the mayoralty in autumn 2022 and has had a communications specialist working on his behalf. Barnet-born, he has won awards for setting up charities.

Far more recently, businessman Daniel Korski stepped forward, followed by Alex Challoner, founder of Cavendish Communications. The Conservative Home list is completed by former Lewisham Lib Dem councillor Duwayne Brooks, businesswoman, self-described “portfolio careerist” and former royal aide Natalie Campbell and a member of the Senedd, Natasha Asghar.

It is, then, a varied field. Opposition to the Mayor’s plan to further enlarge the Ultra-Low Emission Zone unites them, though Korski has stepped well out of line by advocating the introduction of London-wide road-user charging. A good idea few Tories can abide. He also – unlike Boff, Hall and Scully – voted Remain at the 2016 referendum. Should Korski make the shortlist those things alone would enliven the summer’s hustings, but it is hard to imagine the membership endorsing him.

With the Leicester Square branch of Greggs in mind, Korski has also said he would “roll back arbitrary restrictions” on London’s night life, though licensing decisions aren’t a London Mayor’s to make. Kasumu has since said he would publicly criticise councils that take the side of residents unhappy about late night noise and thereby “prevent the local economy from flourishing”. This looks like a pitch to younger voters that perhaps overlooks the fact that Labour took control of Westminster City Council for the first time ever last year in part by promising action against nocturnal antisocial behaviour.

There is, inevitably, a lot of talk about policing and crime, which Hall, like her favourite broadcasters, insists is “out of control”. She is promising to recruit more officers using City hall budgets and to “reverse the closures of police hubs that have happened over the last seven years”. She has yet to mention those Mayor Johnson set in train. Scully has been more aligned with the Casey Review findings, arguing that public confidence must be restored through better screening of new recruits, checks on current staff and stronger connections with communities.

The contest so far has been about getting on the shortlist (for those who stand a chance) or getting attention (for those who don’t). The two or three who are picked for it will then need to woo a Tory selectorate which might not be as right-wing as the membership nationally, but will surely respond well to crowd-pleasing noises about crime and transport. Housing is trickier: like the national government, Tories tend to want more housing built except when they don’t.

I will be voting for Khan next May – I’ll tell you why another day – but I would like to see him face a credible Conservative challenge that doesn’t, unlike previous campaigns, rely on risible scaremongering and campaign material that seeks to trick voters into believing it comes from City Hall or Transport for London.

Boff ought to get the job. As mayoral candidate he would run his own show and present a different and perhaps more testing kind of challenge to Khan than any of the others. My hunch, though – and that’s all it is – is that Scully and Hall are the two most likely to make the shortlist, and if it’s a three-horse race maybe Kasumu will get through too. Boff might be seen as having had chances before and, for all their railing against “woke” and “political correctness”, the Tories won’t want to be seen as excluding women or people who aren’t white.

Could any of them defeat Khan? The government’s imposition of the first past the post voting system will make doing so less difficult, as it will split the non-Tory vote, and there are obvious lines of attack against the Labour incumbent, who some voters will simply have grown tired of.

That said, the Tory brand is ailing in London and neither Hall nor Scully would find it easy to distance themselves from an anti-London national government they’ve served in or supported, or from their backing for Brexit, which most Londoners opposed. Both believe they can hurt Khan over ULEZ and the Met. But Khan will already know how to hurt them back.

Updated on 4 June 2023 to give more information about Natalie Campbell

Twitter: Dave Hill and On London.

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Categories: Analysis


  1. Steve Norris says:

    There are three very credible candidates to face a mayor who is even losing his own side he is so unpopular. They are Paul Scully, Alex Challoner and Natalie Campbell who you describe as a former royal aide. If you’d described her as Chancellor of Westminster University you might see why she’s rather more credible than you imply. There is a reason Boff has failed every time he’s stood. As to your declaration of support for Khan it’s disappointing but a symptom of your definite move to the left which is sad. Your USP was your objectivity.

    1. Dave Hill says:

      Hi Steve. That is a fair point about Natalie Campbell and I’ve updated the piece accordingly (I’m afraid I relied on Conservative Home).

      On London has always carried comment/opinion pieces, including by me, and I’ve never been a Conservative voter. The website has also always striven to report fairly and explain accurately the policies of all the serious candidates, and that will continue.

  2. ASLEF shrugged says:

    Khan has also suggested London-wide road-user charging but unlike Mr Korski he has admitted that the technology to introduce it doesn’t currently exist and it could be years away

    Singapore does have road charging but it relies on all vehicles being fitted with a unit which register every time they pass detectors installed at various points. It is also limited to a central district about the size of the Congestion Zone and major roads

    There are approx. 2.6m cars registered in Greater London plus vans, lorries, coaches, etc. plus all the vehicles that drive into London from elsewhere in the UK and abroad

    It probably won’t happen until we have road-charging across the whole of the UK

  3. Paul Conlan says:

    The few polls since the last mayoral election have put Sadiq Khan’s approval ratings well into negative territory. I doubt he can turn that around before next May but he needs to do much more to promote his achievements on housing (that are not widely appreciated) and have a better story to tell on crime and the problems of TfL.

    Fortunately, the unpopularity of the Tory brand will make it difficult for them to capitalise on any mood for change. Their best chance would probably be to follow the formula that has worked for them in the West Midlands, where Andy Street campaigned as a successful businessman who was not party political and very much downplayed his Tory connections.

    I notice there are some business people seeking the nomination but they are not well known to the general public and I doubt one of them can pull off the same trick. If not, then I expect Sadiq will be able to grind out another win but it may be uncomfortably close.

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