Rory Stewart’s biggest asset in the London mayoral race is also his biggest problem: that Sadiq Khan is overwhelmingly likely to win and may well do so in the first round. Khan has very few big ticket items to point to as he gears up for re-election – the only major exception is London Power, the green energy company he has established – but he is a skilled campaigner who is very good at making Londoners feel good about themselves.
His abilities as a politician helped to scare off any truly top-tier Tory challengers: Karren Brady and Justine Greening, the candidate who Team Khan most feared, all opted not to stand. Potentially effective second-tier candidates, such as James Cleverley and Ed Vaizey, also mulled runs before deciding not to go for the job. When Shaun Bailey, a London Assembly member, opted to run, Conservative party elites quickly cohered around him, in large part due to relief that someone wanted to go for it. But the decision to put so much capital into Bailey increasingly looks like a disastrous mistake, and it is hard to argue that they wouldn’t have been better off with any other candidate.
That creates a lot of space for Stewart to get more media attention because he is a new, shiny object, which Sadiq Khan is not, but is running a competent campaign, which Shaun Bailey is not.
We can see that Stewart, if the latest YouGov poll for Queen Mary’s Mile End Institute is right, has done pretty well with that approach – he is picking up votes from all across London’s political divides. He is taking the largest single chunk of votes from the Conservatives, but a good chunk from Labour too as well as picking up votes from the Greens and Liberal Democrats. That looks to validate my original assessment of his run, which is that there is a constituency for it in London: it just isn’t big enough to win. Sadiq Khan continues to poll well above his party even in London – a major boost on 2016, when he performed only about as well as we’d expect given the city’s overall demographics. He is within the margin of error not only of landslide victory but a first-round triumph.
What would worry me were I Bailey is that what I do look to have got completely wrong was my sense that Bailey had already found the Conservative party’s floor in London and couldn’t fall much further: he is considerably closer to Stewart in third place and Khan in first, at a time when the economy is still growing, the government’s handling of coronavirus is being covered approvingly by most of the media, and Brexit has resided as an issue of concern. If any of those change between now and May, the prospect of not just defeat but a third-placed finish cannot be ruled out.