As Boris heads for Westminster, the truce between Labour’s mayoral rivals is about to end

With Johnson departing, City Hall is the opposition's for the taking. But which contender will move first?

With Johnson departing, City Hall is the opposition's for the taking. But which contender will move first?
Tottenham MP David Lammy may launch his bid to become mayor of London at Labour's conference next month. Photograph: Getty Images.

The age of Boris and Ken is at an end. For the first time since the post of mayor of London was created in 2000, neither of these titans will be on the ballot paper in May 2016. Following Johnson’s deceptively humble announcement that he will “try to find somewhere to stand in 2015” (his search, one suspects, will not be in vain), the path is clear for a new figure to secure one of the most coveted jobs in British politics.

The mayor of London combines control of a £17bn budget with executive powers over housing, planning and transport – and the largest personal mandate of any European politician bar the president of France. Whichever party wins the general election, further responsibilities are likely to be awarded in recognition of the capital’s increasingly distinct status.

It is on the Labour side that interest in the role is greatest. After the party achieved its best result in London since 1998 in the May local elections, the contest is the opposition’s to lose. There is officially only one declared candidate – the transport buff Christian Wolmar – but Tessa Jowell, Sadiq Khan and David Lammy are regarded as certain to stand, with Diane Abbott, Andrew Adonis and Margaret Hodge also considering it.

To date, they have respected an unwritten agreement to postpone their bids until after the general election (when Labour’s closed primary will be held). But this truce could be about to end. Lammy, who turned down a shadow ministerial post in 2010, is considering launching his campaign at the Labour conference next month. The Tottenham MP has recruited Labour’s Tower Hamlets election co-ordinator, Matthew Bethell, and Teddy Goff, Barack Obama’s head of digital strategy in 2012. He has also undergone a pre-campaign makeover. “He’s ditched the glasses, he’s wearing sharper suits and he’s lost some weight,” notes one observer.

Not everyone is impressed, however. “Labour members in London will find it difficult to forgive time, effort and money being spent on mayoral campaigns rather than in the target seats we need to win in London,” a party source told me.

Lammy’s desire to gain momentum is in part recognition that he is not the front-runner. That status is held by Jowell. The former culture secretary leads in the opinion polls and is admired across party lines for her stewardship of the Olympics bid. As  a devoted ally of Tony Blair (once declaring that she would “jump in front of a bus to save him”), she will benefit from the political and financial muscle of the New Labour establishment.

If Jowell’s past is a virtue, it is also a liability. She voted for and continues to defend policies such as the Iraq war, top-up fees and 90-day detention and her association with Blair is regarded by party figures as “toxic”. Among a Labour “selectorate” that lies to the left of the national party, all of this will count against her. Jowell would also face personal scrutiny over her husband, David Mills, who was prosecuted in Italy in 2006 for allegedly accepting a bribe from Silvio Berlusconi, and with whom she reunited after six years apart.

For these reasons, some regard the true favourite as Sadiq Khan. As shadow London minister, he is assiduously building the networks and relationships required to win the nomination. On the night of Labour’s local elections triumph in the capital, he darted from count to count to congratulate party candidates on their victories. Like Ed Miliband, whose leadership campaign he managed, the Tooting MP would run to the left of the favourite and seek to win trade union endorsements through a radical manifesto.

Among those likely to support Khan’s candidacy is Doreen Lawrence, the mother of Stephen, who was recently made a Labour peer. The pair first met through anti-racism campaigns and sat together on a Home Office committee on stop-and-search during his time as a human rights lawyer. Lawrence would be a natural choice for the post of deputy mayor for equality, a new role recently proposed by Khan.

Yet in a city with a penchant for mavericks, Khan’s close association with the Labour leadership may hinder him. “Cities don’t vote for party hacks,” one MP said. An early declaration by Lammy would make it far harder for Khan to maintain his studied ambiguity over his intentions.

Of the remaining contenders, Hodge is said to fear attacks over her “loony left” past (she was recently forced to apologise for failing to investigate allegations of paedophilia as leader of Islington Council) and is being wooed by Jowell, while Adonis is eyeing the post of transport commissioner. Abbott is the closest to a Livingstone-style insurgent, but the question, one Labour MP says, is: “Can she run anything?”

Among the Conservatives, Sebastian Coe, Karren Brady and Zac Goldsmith are most frequently cited as potential candidates. Yet to varying degrees all three have already ruled themselves out. In the absence of a political superstar in the model of Johnson (who remains by far the country’s most popular politician), the party may be forced to settle for a second-tier candidate such as the deputy mayor Kit Malthouse or the London Assembly member James Cleverly.

For some Tories, their unpromising position is testimony to Johnson’s failure to move the centre ground during his time in office. George Osborne, in particular, seems to regard the mayor not as a serious politician but as a crude populist whose one abiding principle is self-advancement. Yet, for others, the struggle the party will face to retain City Hall is merely confirmation of Johnson’s unrivalled lustre.

The mayor is what the Conservative Party has traditionally loved most of all: a winner. “There is a great and glorious future for Britain,” he declared this month. For Britain, read Boris. 

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Now listen to George discussing Boris’s parliamentary ambitions with Helen Lewis and Anoosh Chakelian on the NS podcast: