Wanted: someone, anyone, to run for London Mayor

The Conservatives had a reasonably good candidate for the job - but they sacked her. 

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Can anyone stop Sadiq Khan? That’s the question that London’s Conservatives are asking. One of the positive stories for Labour in the latest set of polling of the capital’s voters from Queen Mary’s Mile End Institute, was Khan’s continuing popularity: more than half of all Londoners think he is doing a good job as Mayor and he has strong cross-party appeal, too.

One of my conclusions from my post-mortem of the 2017 result was that I was going to think less about headline voting intention outside of election season. The next mayoral election, as with the general election, is several years away so I don’t think it is worth getting particularly animated about how Labour’s overall strong performance in the polls in London or even in the local elections in May will translate into Khan’s re-election prospects.

That said, two years from the last election and two years to the next is the point where you would expect Khan’s possible opponents to be limbering up for a run at the top job. In 2010, Labour was already midway through its selection process, with Oona King mounting a doomed attempt to beat Ken Livingstone to the nomination. In 2014, Diane Abbott, David Lammy and Tessa Jowell had both officially declared their intention to run for the job while it was an open secret that Khan was Ed Miliband’s preferred choice. On the Conservative side, Boris Johnson announced in 2014 that he would be returning to Parliament in 2015 and would as a result not be seeking a third term. This is really the point where Tory minds ought to be turning to the question of who their candidate will be in 2020 and roughly what their message will be.

It’s quite easy to draw up a list of qualifications for the candidate: if in politics they will either be a high-profile council leader with a good record or a Cabinet minister. They will have voted Remain in the referendum and will come from a non-traditional Conservative background. They will have experience of fighting a marginal election. The difficulty with this shopping list is that I have just described Justine Greening, who is not popular among Conservatives and having been sacked by Theresa May it is not clear to me how she pivots from that to running for Mayor of London. (The inevitable question of how the Tories can think someone who wasn’t good enough for the DfE is good enough to run the capital is hard to immediately rebut.)

So at that point the best Conservative option is probably to try to recruit someone from the world of business or the arts, perhaps someone with a profile from The Apprentice or Dragon’s Den or similar. In the West Midlands, the party did a great job recruiting Andy Street, the former head of John Lewis, as their mayora candidate. The problem though is that it is hard to sell a candidate of that profile on a race that already looks quite difficult. Which is why, even though it is still some time in the future, Sadiq Khan’s political strength now makes it tricky for the Conservatives to take advantage even should his stature have unexpectedly crumbled by 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.

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