James Cleverly bows out with a masterclass in how not to attack Sadiq Khan

The Braintree MP’s short interest in the race ended with a demonstration of what his party’s candidate shouldn’t do.

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Another one bites the dust: James Cleverly, who had as recently as this weekend been “50-50” about running for the London mayoralty according to the Telegraph, has ruled himself out of mayoral contention.

For the Conservatives, it is a further blow to their already small chances of preventing Sadiq Khan from being re-elected in 2020. Although Cleverly was not without his downsides as a candidate, he was essentially the last man standing as far as candidates from the parliamentary party go. Now he has joined Justine Greening, Ed Vaizey, and the Apprentice’s Karren Brady in ruling themselves out.

The lack of a big figure is a double blow for Tory hopes: Londoners tend to prefer a candidate who can serve as a monarch as well as a mayor, and also because a big figure can insulate themselves from some aspects of the national Conservative platform that play particularly badly in London (Heathrow expansion and Brexit). Small wonder that the mood around Sadiq Khan’s inner-circle is pretty cheerful at present.

The Tory problem has an obvious cause: Khan is very popular; the Conservative national platform makes it hard to win in London; the capital, as with all of England’s great cities, has become more hospitable to Labour in recent elections; and a lot of politicians don’t fancy giving up two years of their life simply to be defeated.

So it’s tempting for Conservatives to be in denial about the problem, even as they swerve out of the way of it. Cleverly announced his decision to duck out of the race on Twitter, where he branded Khan as “weak, petulant and disappointing”. But the difficulty for Tories is that voters don’t see Khan as any of those things – he is well-liked. The Tories have the same problem that London Labour used to with Boris Johnson: their attacks on him run so strongly in opposition to voters’ impression of him that they look unhinged.

Any successful political attack line has to run with, not against, the groove of what people already think about a politician or candidate. Ed Vaizey, who very briefly mulled a run, had the right tone, praising him as a person, supporting many of his aims but drawing into question his delivery. “Great guy, bad mayor” is a good line because voters already believe the first thing – while “weak, petulant and disappointing” is a bad line because anyone who uses it seems a bit demented.

Whoever ends up with the difficult task of running against Khan will be better off if they take a leaf from the Vaizey book.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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