In an astute move, the Conservatives have decided to select their candidate for the London mayoralty early, with the contest to run over the summer and the winner announced at Tory party conference.
It gives the Conservatives in London a face and the opportunity to move their campaign beyond incessant sniping at Khan and towards a positive message about what a Tory vote in the capital is worth, as well as allowing them to develop their candidate’s profile, particularly as many of their best options – Justine Greening, Ed Vaizey, and Munira Mirza are three good examples – have no real public profile. And as the Conservatives hold all of the other winnable mayoral races, it makes sense to focus relentlessly on the London contest as well.
The decision is not without its downsides, however. Expecting a candidate to commit the best part of two years to a contest where they start as the underdog to the incumbent mayor, Sadiq Khan means that the chances of attracting a big name like Boris Johnson in 2007 or any of the celebrities regularly tipped for the contest this time around are slim.
Another downside can be seen in the two – or 16, depending on how you count these things – important votes looming in the House of Commons over the next two weeks. Of those votes, 15 are on the European Union Withdrawal Bill. One of the requirements of London’s mayor is an ability to “stand up” for London and you don’t have to be a politician of Sadiq Khan’s quality to make the argument that any politician not voting against the government next week is not “standing up” for London or anything like it, particularly given the importance of single market membership to the capital’s economy. But it’s quite a big risk even for Greening and Vaizey, whose careers under Theresa May are unlikely to include a return to the frontbench, but who do need to be selected by an overwhelmingly pro-Leave party membership.
And then there’s Heathrow. No-one has won the London mayoralty without opposing Heathrow expansion, and although that wasn’t the only reason those candidates won (not least because in 2008 and 2016 both major candidates were anti-expansion) it is hard to work out where the votes to elect a Tory mayor of London will come from if they are at odds with the affluent suburbs of Richmond and Hillingdon, where opposition to the third runway is at its highest. Backing Heathrow expansion also means that the Conservative candidate takes away one of what should be an effective weapon against Khan: the failure to get to grips with London’s bad air.
That speaks to an underlying problem with the aspirant Conservative candidates for the mayoralty: one of the tricks to winning the mayoralty is to find a way to be in, but not of, the party you are running from. Ken Livingstone, Boris Johnson and Sadiq Khan all did or do a good job of that. Steve Norris, the Conservative Livingstone defeated twice, did a poor job of it. Zac Goldsmith managed to differentiate himself from the Tory brand and not in a good way.
While the Conservatives have made the right choice in selecting early, navigating the next 23 months will not be an easy task for whoever is selected to run against Sadiq Khan in 2020. The next few weeks are only the start of the difficult trade-offs they have to wrestle with.