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28 September 2018

In Shaun Bailey, Sadiq Khan gets his preferred opponent

Labour strategists feel that the Conservatives have chosen their least impressive option, but have no doubt they could still lose.

By Stephen Bush

It’s Bailey vs Sadiq Khan! Shaun Bailey, a former advisor to David Cameron and parliamentary candidate in the marginal seat of Hammersmith in 2010 and the safe Labour seat of Lewisham West in 2017, has been selected by Conservative members to run for the London mayoralty.

He defeated Andrew Boff and Joy Morrissey, who came third, as it happens in an exact inversion of the order that Khan’s aides feared when the shortlist of three was first announced (they believed that Morrissey was a different type of candidate, while Boff’s experience and independent-minded nature made them tougher propositions). Over at On London, Dave Hill wrote persuasively that the Conservatives would be better off picking either alternative to Bailey.

Khan’s team believe that Bailey’s unimpressive run for the Hammersmith seat showed that he is easy to pull off script and liable to panic when he does, and that will be their focus over the next two years. It’s also true to say that Bailey’s journey – from contesting a heavily-targeted marginal seat to a no-hoper – is not one that screams star quality.

It’s easy to underestimate how parochial a good chunk of the London electorate is. They don’t just want a local official but a substantial figure who speaks to their sense of superiority over people from elsewhere. That Bailey has never made it to Westminster and has no national profile to speak of is a big handicap. It also will make it easier for Khan to turn Bailey into an avatar of everything people dislike about the Conservative government. 

But equally we shouldn’t forget that in 2015, Labour members similarly delighted Conservative strategists by electing Jeremy Corbyn – and few Tory operatives are still laughing about that now. There is also a fear in City Hall that as Bailey has been around for some time, his gaffes are “priced in” and therefore less newsworthy. They also have little expectation of a fair hearing from London’s only citywide paper, the Evening Standard, and fear that if crime continues to rise, they, not cuts to policing, will be blamed for the problem. 

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Conservative Central Headquarters think that Bailey will be able to make rising crime a central election issue without lapsing into Zac Goldsmith style dog-whistles, and that he has good story to tell, thanks to his time as a youth worker on crime, which goes beyond the traditional Tory remedies. 

Bailey starts with formidable obstacles to defeating Khan. Some of those would have been true regardless of the candidate chosen, which is one reason why bigger names, such as Justine Greening and Ed Vaizey, declined to run, but his chances are better than they look. He will hope that, just as George HW Bush’s huge popularity meant that his Democratic opponent was a little-known Southern Democrat called Bill Clinton who benefited from a changing national picture, that events mean that the likes of Greening and Vaizey live to regret sitting this one out.