Rory Stewart’s surprise entry into the London mayoral race provides Conservative voters with something they have hitherto been denied: a right-of-centre candidate who is prepared to talk about Brexit.
One of the stranger moments at this week’s Tory conference was the speech delivered by Shaun Bailey, the party’s official candidate for mayor. It did not mention Brexit at all, instead majoring on knife crime and criticism of Sadiq Khan’s appetite for self-promotion.
Bailey, for his part, reckons that criticism of this obvious strategic choice is “disgraceful” – or so he put it to me in a tweet after I wrote a piece questioning the wisdom of not mentioning Brexit even once, despite running under a party banner that, for better or worse, is now indelibly associated with that project in the minds of most voters. His was the only speech that was about getting done by Brexit, rather than getting Brexit done.
Fair enough. Knife crime is an important issue – indeed, a life-and-death one. It’s perfectly legitimate to ask whether Khan’s achievements in office are commensurate to his media profile. Clean air, the other plank of Bailey’s platform, is something that most voters won’t argue with. And Brexit, as his supporters fall over themselves to point out, is not the mayor’s responsibility.
Well, good luck with that. Last time I checked, it wasn’t Thanet District Council’s responsibility either, but that didn’t stop Ukip winning a majority there in 2015. Nor, to use a more recent example, has it dissuaded Tory and Brexit Party councillors in Hartlepool from forming a pro-Brexit coalition and taking control of the council. Or, to return to the capital, it didn’t stop Boris Johnson from demanding an amnesty for illegal immigrants in 2012.
Banging on about issues outside of your brief might be, as Bailey contends, a distraction from the day job. But it has worked for Khan, who has largely succeeded in his mission to present himself as the candidate of London’s liberal id: open, pro-European, aspirational. It worked for Johnson too, difficult though it is to remember now.
In Bailey, the Tories have a candidate who is choosing not to play that game. Again, fair enough. There is something admirable about his focus on the job itself. Municipal government is hard and unglamorous, and Bailey obviously recognises that. But his decision to do so means he isn’t going to win. Of course, that Shaun Bailey isn’t going to win the London mayoralty is axiomatic – if the Conservatives thought they had any chance of doing so, he wouldn’t be their candidate. That’s politics.
Should Bailey worry about Stewart? Lots of commentators seem to think so. The reality, though, is that his candidacy is really a product of Bailey’s hopelessness. There were two ways for a Conservative candidate to fight this race: run in defiance of the national party’s line on Brexit and attempt to hold together Zac Goldsmith’s 2016 coalition, or embrace it and build a new one. If Bailey was already doing the former, then there would be no market for a candidate like Stewart. Conservative MPs certainly wouldn’t be talking about him finishing third behind the Liberal Democrats’ Siobhan Benita either. (Or, whisper it, fourth.)
But, with Labour flatlining nationally and the field of candidates pitching almost exclusively to Remainers growing by the week, it is baffling that the Conservatives aren’t willing to do the opposite. 40 per cent of Londoners voted to Leave in 2016. Their leader is overwhelmingly popular with Leavers nationally. It is really very difficult to argue that making an explicitly pro-Brexit pitch would serve Bailey or any other Conservative candidate worse than not mentioning it at all and hoping, as some in CCHQ do, that the issue will have gone away by May 2020. Nor can anybody explain what it is about Bailey’s current gambit that will serve him better. He obviously believes that it is the right thing to do in the circumstances. Yet doing the right thing very often doesn’t win you elections – or, for that matter, referendums. The last successful Tory candidate for mayor could tell him that.
So the Conservatives ought to have done the wrong thing, and nominated Andrew Rosindell. Rosindell is MP for Romford and an outspoken Leaver. He very briefly ran last year on an unapologetically pro-Brexit platform. You might remember him from a 2018 local election leaflet that railed against “Mayor Khan” and compared Camden, Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Barking unfavourably to Havering, one of the outer (and whiter) London boroughs that still sees itself as part of Essex. It had the biggest Leave vote of all 32. His strategy was to energise the Conservative core vote in places like this, before making targeted pitches to individual minority communities. In essence, he wanted to do to London what Dominic Cummings wants to do to the north and midlands.
Divisive? Yes. Disgraceful? Maybe. A winning strategy? Obviously not. But the fundamentals of Rosindell’s thinking are identical to Rory Stewart’s. Both assume, correctly, that a Conservative candidate has no chance of winning many of the voters that Boris Johnson and even Zac Goldsmith won. They realise that pretending this isn’t so only increases the chances of an electoral humiliation for the Tories. And unlike Bailey, they had the good sense to act accordingly.