The Conservatives are barking up the wrong tree attacking Sadiq Khan over crime

A new report underlines the private fear of many London Tories that their anti-Khan message has major flaws.

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Do the Conservatives have any chance against Sadiq Khan? That’s the topic of this week’s Skylines podcast, in which Jonn and I discuss Shaun Bailey’s uncertain first weeks as the Tory party candidate for the London mayoral election in 2020.

Part of Bailey’s problem is that he was very slow to apologise for remarks that put him at odds with one group (Hindu voters) without which there is no viable Conservative Party in London and another (social liberals) that were instrumental in electing Boris Johnson and will need to come back to the Tory party if they are to win back City Hall and win decent parliamentary majorities in the future.

But there’s a bigger strategic problem for the Conservative campaign and many of their attacks on Sadiq Khan: their focus on rising crime in London. It’s long worried some Conservative MPs that there was a hole in this particular boat for some time: the problem, of course, is that while crime is rising in London, it is also rising across the country and the capital’s crime rate is no worse than the national average. (The murder rate has oscillated between being average, well above and well below the national average, because there are so few murders in the United Kingdom full stop that the dataset is pretty volatile.)

You cannot successfully prosecute the argument that rising crime in London is the fault of the Mayor of London while crime is also rising across the country by the same rate. Today’s hard-hitting report by the home affairs select committee on the impact that the cuts have had on policing underlines the problem. All Team Khan will need is one Conservative backbencher outside London who has publicly called for more money for their local police to effectively rebut the idea that the capital’s problems occur in a vacuum.

The crime line also has problems for the Conservative Party because of its existing brand problems. Voters don’t just respond to what a party’s message is, but how they feel about the party’s messengers. It’s a very fine line to tread between harnessing the benefits of a (broadly popular) authoritarian message on crime and bearing the costs of the (largely unpopular) image of the Tory party as mean, illiberal and a little bit racist. Bluntly you’ve got to be a more skilled political operator than Bailey has ever looked like being to pull that off.

The other problem with attacking Khan over crime is that it is an issue where the Mayor of London has a good story to tell. He can point to rising crime elsewhere and blame the Conservative government at Westminster. He has a significantly less good story to tell as far as concrete achievements of his own as Mayor.

The focus on Khan and crime is a striking example of the tendency of political parties to believe their own hype. As one London Conservative recently observed to me, it is very easy to get a round of applause at a local association talking about Sadiq Khan and crime. It is less easy to get Tory activists hot under the collar about his failure to push ahead with any significant pedestrianisation schemes or the capital’s poor air quality. But that’s where the party needs to be if they are to have any hope of beating Khan in 2020.

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.