No 10 "underwhelmed" by Boris's campaign

Downing Street concerned that the London mayor's re-election campaign lacks direction.

For months, the conventional wisdom was that the London mayoral race is already called for the Tories. But the polls tell a different story. Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson are neck and neck, in what is shaping up to be London's closest mayoral contest since devolved government was reintroduced in the capital.

Boris may have regained the lead, but YouGov puts only two points between them, and according to reports today, Tory top command is starting to worry.

Alice Thompson writes in the Times (£):

Downing Street is worried. When the mayor came in with his Australian election strategist Lynton Crosby last week, they thought their plans were "underwhelming" and lacked a simple "retail offer" for voters. Boris might irritate the Prime Minister but the Conservatives need him to stay in City Hall. They are even prepared to consider Boris Island, his plan for a new airport, if it helps his cause.

The fundamental problem appears to be that his campaign lacks direction. According to Thompson's report, internal Tory polling shows that voters can't see what Boris has done. Ken has a clear "retail offer": cutting fares and bashing bankers. Boris's campaign, meanwhile, lacks direction, while his association with the City continues to be a problem.

He has always been a politician who relies on personality. Last month my colleague Rafael Behr argued that Boris's incumbency might be hurting this trump card:

Last time around, Boris was the challenger, which suited his self-image as a bit of a maverick, an eccentric, a TV personality and so, crucially, not a typical Tory. Some of that image remains, but the mantle of office has necessarily imposed a degree of discipline on the mayor. He still gets away with more mannered dishevelment than is usual for someone in his position, but there is an extent to which his pre-election persona has been absorbed into a more conventional political identity. Or, to put it in cruder terms, he is becoming more Tory than Boris.

Thompson quotes an aide saying that "Boris needs a fright" and that a close race will be good for him. Which way the vote goes on 3 May depends on many factors, not least voter turnout, but there is certainly a lot at more at stake than the cartoon rivalry between two big personalities. A win for Ken -- widely seen as past his political prime -- would be a serious mid-term shock for the Tories. It is no surprise that Downing Street is rearing into action.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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The Taliban's succession crisis will not diminish its resilience

Haibatullah Akhunzada's appointment as leader of the Taliban may put stress on the movement, but is unlikely to dampen its insurgency. 

After 19 years under the guidance of the Taliban’s supreme leader Mullah Omar, the group has now faced two succession crises in under a year. But although Haibatullah Akhunzada’s appointment as leader of the Taliban will likely put stress on the movement, it shows few signals of diminishing its renewed insurgency.

The news pretty much ends speculation about former leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour’s death in a US airstrike in Pakistan’s south-western Baluchistan province, which was criticised by Islamabad as a violation of its sovereignty.

The Taliban would have prepared extensively for this eventuality. The fast appointment, following days of intense council, appears to be a conspicuous act of decisiveness. It stands in contrast to the two-year delay the movement faced in announcing the death of the Mullah Omar. It will be not be lost on the Taliban that it was subterfuge around the death of Mullah Omar that caused the fracture within the movement which in turn led to the establishment of an ISIS presence in the country.

The appointment is a victory for the Taliban old guard. As former head of the Taliban's judiciary and Mullah Mansour’s deputy, in many ways, Haibatullah is a natural successor. Haibatullah, described by Afghanistan expert Sami Yousafzai as a “stone age Mullah,” demonstrates the Taliban’s inherent tendency to resort to tradition rather than innovation during times of internal crisis.

The decision taken by the Taliban to have an elder statesman of the group at the helm highlights the increasing marginalisation of the Haqqani network, a powerful subset within the Taliban that has been waging an offensive against the government and coalition forces in northwest Pakistan.

Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the Haqqani network who already has a bounty of 5 million dollars on his head, was touted in some Taliban circles as a potential successor, however the decision to overlook him is a conservative move from the Taliban. 

The Taliban’s leadership of the jihad against the Afghan government is hinged on their claims to religious legitimacy, something the group will hope to affirm through the Haibatullah’s jurisprudential credentials. This assertion of authority has particular significance given the rise of ISIS elements in the country. The last two Taliban chiefs have both declared themselves to be amir ul-momineen or ‘leader of the faithful,’ providing a challenge to the parallel claims of ISIS’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Any suggestions that Mansour’s death will lead to the unravelling of the Taliban are premature. The military targeting of prominent jihadi leaders within group structures has been seen in operations against the leadership of ISIS, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and other groups.

In recent research for the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics, we found that it is often less prominent jihadis that play an integral role in keeping the movement alive. Targeted killings do create a void, but this often comes at the expense of addressing the wider support base and ideological draw of militant outfits. This is particularly relevant with a relatively decentralised movement like the Taliban.

Such operations can spur activity. If the example of the Taliban’s previous leadership succession is to be heeded, we might expect renewed attacks across Afghanistan, beyond the group’s strongholds near the eastern border with Pakistan. The brief capture of Kunduz, Afghanistan's fifth-largest city, at the end of September 2015, was a show of strength to answer the numerous internal critics of Mullah Mansour’s new leadership of the movement.

In a news cycle dominated by reports of ISIS, and to a diminishing extent al-Qaeda, atrocities, it is important to comprehend the renewed brutality of the Afghan insurgency.  Data from the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics Global Extremism Monitor found a seventeen per cent rise in fatalities from March to April, marking the start of the Taliban’s spring fighting season. A suicide attack in central Kabul on the headquarters of an elite military unit that killed 64 people was the single most deadly act of terror around the world in the month of April, and the group’s bloodiest attack in the Afghan capital for years. Reports this morning of a suicide attack on a bus killing 10 staff from an appeal court west of Kabul, suggests that the violence shows no sign of diminishing under the new leadership.

All these developments come during a period of renewed impetus behind international peace talks. Last week representatives from Pakistan were joined by delegates from Afghanistan, the United States, and China in an attempt to restart the stalled negotiation process with the Taliban.

Haibatullah Akhunzada’s early leadership moves will be watched closely by these countries, as well as dissonant voices within the movement, to ascertain what the Taliban does next, in a period of unprecedented challenge for the infamously resilient movement. 

Milo Comerford is a South and Central Asia Analyst for the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics