13 June 2018

Sadiq Khan has been found out. The right Tory candidate can beat him

By Harry Phibbs

Roll up, roll up. The Conservatives are looking for a candidate to be the Mayor of London. But there’s a catch. A Tory source tells The Sunday Times: “We are likely to lose anyway, so it is better to send a visible message to voters that we are changing.”

That is taken to mean either having a woman candidate — which would probably mean Justine Greening, the former Education Secretary and the Conservative MP for Putney (who was the first openly LGBT woman to serve in cabinet). Or a non-white candidate. Here possible contenders include Shaun Bailey, a member of the London Assembly whose family are from Jamaica. Another contender could be Syed Kamall. His present job as a Member of the European Parliament for London has inevitably limited career potential. Kamall is a Muslim whose father came to Britain from Guyana in the 1950s.

Class background matters just as much, perhaps more. A bigger challenge to the Conservatives than perception of sexism, racism or homophobia is that they are felt to be on the side of the rich rather than the poor. Here the candidates mentioned above also have useful “back stories” — Greening’s father was a steel worker, Kamall’s a bus driver, Bailey’s a lorry driver.

“I’m the son of a grocer,” said Zac Goldsmith, the Conservative candidate for Mayor last time round. His billionaire father, Sir James, owned Cavenham Foods, one of the UK’s leading food processing businesses. The defeat of Zac, a rich white man, is taken to provide a lesson for the Conservatives about the imperative of a diverse brand.

Yet the defeatist tone of that Tory “source” is misplaced. Sadiq Khan, the Labour incumbent is halfway through his term and he is being found out. For instance he promised to “ensure” 80,000 new affordable homes a year. In Khan’s first year 4,934 were completed. In his second year it was 5,355.

He also promised to “challenge gang culture and knife crime head on”. But Khan, a former human rights lawyer, has been weak and ineffective. These problems have got significantly worse. Photo opportunities and blaming other people are not enough.

Nor is identity politics. Last time Khan put great emphasis on his Muslim faith. He claimed that due to this he was attacked by Goldsmith. That was completely untrue. Goldsmith, quite legitimately, challenged Khan over association with extremists. But there were certainly plenty of people who felt that electing a Muslim Mayor sent out a welcome message. The real problem was that Goldsmith’s attacks on Khan distracted him from setting out what he would do as Mayor.

Next time it is important for the Conservative candidate for Mayor of London to be a forceful personality who has clear and bold plans for the city. It needs to be someone who really wants the job — Goldsmith sounded a bit diffident at times. In the 2020 contest, persuading Londoners that Mayor Khan has failed should be perfectly possible. But to defeat him, a convincing alternative programme must be put forward.

In these Mayoral contests the individual candidate and the policies they offer, transcends the party label. Labour have a big lead in London. But voters are skittish. Also in two years time Brexit will be old news — so the difficulty for the Conservatives of the big Remainer majority on London will be less potent.

It is very sensible of the Conservatives to be selecting a candidate early. That will give whoever is chosen the time to tour the capital campaigning and networking, to raise and spend lots of money and get across some policies.

One example would be selling the vast amount of surplus land owned by Transport for London. TfL owns 5,700 acres. The whole of Camden is 5,384 acres. Releasing that land for housing would be very popular. That is providing it would be for beautiful traditional housing — terraced streets and mansion squares not tower blocks. The proceeds of the sales could also help to fund transport improvements.

I was once given a tour of City Hall. It was enlightening to have the true horror brought home of the scale of waste and over-staffing. The facts and figures can never quite convey it in the same way as the physical manifestation. The Conservative candidate for Mayor needs to be anti-establishment, someone who will champion reform and take on the bureaucratic vested interests — not just in TfL but the whole Greater London Authority “family”.

Value for money is the key message. Lower fares and a lower Council Tax precept are both quite achievable. Credible plans to fight crime and widen home ownership must be offered. To put it simply, the most important requirement is to have a Conservative candidate with Conservative policies.

If whoever is chosen happens to be a woman, or black or working-class then that is fine and dandy. But making a great imperative out of identity politics would be a mistake. Those enthused by that patronising approach will probably vote to give Mayor Khan a second term anyway. To defeat him, the Conservative candidate needs to offer Londoners solid improvements in their daily lives — not seeing the election as some parade where one candidate competes to be more diverse than the others.

Harry Phibbs is a freelance journalist and former Conservative councillor in London.