Shaun Bailey will almost certainly lose to Sadiq Khan, but he won’t embarrass the Tories

And that, for them, will be progress. 


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That sound you can hear? A big sigh of relief from Conservative strategists: Shaun Bailey, a member of the London Assembly, former Downing Street adviser and parliamentary candidate in Hammersmith, is running for the party’s London mayoral nomination.

A slew of top-tier candidates – including the former cabinet minister Justine Greening and the Apprentice star Karren Brady – had ruled themselves out, as had a serious of promising second-tier candidates – Ed Vaizey and Munira Mirza. In alarming news for Tory hopes, Andrew Rosindell, who has publicly insulted four of London’s 32 borough, wants to expand the number of aeroplanes flying over another two, and is on record as wanting to secede from the remainder, has entered the race as the sole MP.

The only other declared candidate so far who is not voter-repellent in the capital is Andrew Boff. He ticks a lot of boxes: he knows a great deal about the workings of the mayoralty, and from a political perspective, he was the first Conservative to publicly condemn Zac Goldsmith’s dogwhistle campaign, a vital prerequisite to fixing some of the Conservative’s brand damage. Boff has also called for much needed changes to Britain’s drug laws, both sensible in policy terms and the kind of position that London Conservatives will need to occupy if they want to retain a competitive interest in City Hall in the future. The tone of Boff’s condemnation (“a dogwhistle in a city with no dog”) of Goldsmith was also right for a vital group of London’s swing voters, who want to elect someone who tickles their prejudices about London’s place in the rest of the country. (In short: London great, rest of the world not so much.) That was part of Boris Johnson’s appeal and something Sadiq Khan has done a good job of tapping into too. One thing that people often get wrong in analysing the capital’s voters is forgetting that the London electorate is no less parochial or chauvinistic in its way than any other part: it’s just it expresses those desires a bit differently.

But I think that Boff has one too many heresies for activist tastes. In Bailey, they have someone who isn’t going to damage the Conservative Party through his campaign, as Zac Goldsmith did. And as far as Bailey's own personal ambitions go, the trade-off of running is a good one. (On the downside, the Tory candidate will almost certainly be flattened by Khan. On the upside, the Tory candidate can establish themselves as An Important Voice within their party just by running.)

Bailey himself ticks a lot of boxes too: he’s London born-and-bred, comes from a non-traditional Conservative background (he is from a single parent family), went to London South Bank University, and is black, which again helps to repair some of the damage that the Goldsmith campaign did to the Tory party’s standing in London.

But I suspect that that London chauvinism runs heavily against someone who hasn’t made it to Westminster or to a Big Job of some shape or form. (Johnson and Khan’s big jobs were in opposition posts but they were still major figures within their parties.) That lack of a Big Job makes it hard for Bailey to inoculate himself against two of the policies that will hurt the Conservatives in the London mayoral race – support for expanding Heathrow and Brexit – which makes it difficult to see how he can win. But crucially, in losing, he might leave the standing of the Conservative Party in London in a better shape than the very poor one he finds it. A step up, as far as most senior Conservatives are concerned, from the nightmare of a Rosindell candidacy.

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.