Will anyone stand against Sadiq Khan? The mayor of London’s formidable popularity and campaigning skills already make running against him an unappetising prospect for any ambitious Tory, as they will likely lose.
Added to that, that Conservative high command has opted to select their candidate early means that not only must would-be candidates commit to a race where they start as heavy outsiders, but also commit two years of their life to a high-profile contest with no salary and the very real prospect of a landslide defeat at the end of it.
That’s part of why several high-profile contenders have cried off. Justine Greening, the most experienced London Conservative (other than Boris Johnson), has declined to run. So has Karren Brady, the Tory peer and Apprentice star. (It may be that Greening giving it a miss opens up the possibility that Ed Vaizey, who declined to run and endorsed Greening, might throw his hat in the ring.)
But there is one big-name (ish) London Tory who might yet run: James Cleverly, the MP for Braintree.
If you were a Conservative strategist, Cleverly ticks a lot of boxes. He’s from London, though he represents a seat just outside its periphery. He’s from a ethnic minority and as the most important part of the Tory mission is not winning but cleansing the taint of Zac Goldsmith’s racially-charged run for the job, that’s important too.
Journalists like him and think he has a big future at Westminster, so while he will face one of the problems any Conservative challenger will face (being written off) he won’t be mocked in the way that a politician at the end of their career, for whom the London mayoralty would be the pinnacle of their life’s work, would be. And having been a member of the London Assembly and Johnson’s mayoral team, he knows how to do the job.
The problem is he also ticks a lot of boxes that a Labour strategist would want. He is pro-Heathrow and voted for the third runway on 25 June. He is vocally pro-Brexit. It’s difficult to work out how any Conservative can win the London mayoralty without winning big in Richmond, where both airport expansion and Brexit are highly unpopular.
And it will be in essentially everyone else’s interest to make the London election a referendum on Heathrow: the Greens and Liberal Democrats’ as they fight to finish “best of the rest”, Sadiq Khan’s as he aims to hit the Conservatives and scoop up second preferences from Liberal Democrat and Green voters, and of course every non-aligned environmental campaigner will be keen to do so as well. That’s assuming that Brexit has receded as an electoral issue, which is possible, but not likely.
Of course, for Cleverly, as with any Conservative who decides to run, that is a secondary issue: the London mayoral race is the only competitive election this side of the devolved elections in 2021, so the Conservative candidate will have an enhanced profile, which will do their own career no harm, win or (much more likely) lose.