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Was Shaun Bailey a good candidate for the London mayoralty after all?

The headline results are more flattering to Bailey than his campaign deserves.

By Stephen Bush

Does Shaun Bailey’s closer-than-anticipated defeat at the hands of Sadiq Khan show that he was a better candidate than expected – or that the London mayoralty is still a winnable target for the modern Conservative Party?

One of the minor surprises of the 2021 local elections was that Bailey, whose campaign had become almost as much of a running joke among Conservatives as among Labourites, did slightly better against Khan (polling 35 per cent to Khan’s 40 per cent) than Zac Goldsmith (who polled 35 per cent to 44 per cent).

The reality is less flattering to Bailey than it appears. He did better in percentage terms than Goldsmith, yes, but got fewer actual votes than Goldsmith did in both rounds. Khan won more second preference votes in 2021 than he did in 2016, and more than Boris Johnson managed in 2012. Bailey, meanwhile, did worse at attracting second preferences than any Conservative candidate to run for mayor previously

The real story of the London mayoral result is that an incumbent without a particularly impressive record in office, but with an undoubted talent for telling Londoners they should be proud of the place they live, ran against a weak challenger whose approach was to tell Londoners they should be ashamed of the city they live in, with predictable consequences. Given that, I don’t think it’s remotely surprising that London was one of the few places in the 2021 elections where turnout was lower than it was in 2016. 

It’s pretty clear, I think, that had the Conservatives been represented by Justine Greening, Ed Vaizey or Rory Stewart in the mayoral race, they would probably have done better both at getting actual votes and in collecting second preferences than Bailey. Looking at the polls, Vaizey’s comments when he briefly considered running – to paraphase, I like Sadiq Khan, he’s a decent guy, if I won, I’d keep what he’s done, but he hasn’t done very much – are pretty much exactly where the median Londoner is. (That Vaizey opted to give the contest a miss turned out to be pretty close to the median Londoner, too.) Surely a campaign with that message, fronted by someone obviously affable and fond of the capital, would have done better than the one the Conservatives actually ran.

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As readers with long memories will know, the day after Khan was elected in 2016, I bet £10 on Greening to win the next mayoral election. I thought she was by far the most impressive Conservative candidate for the job, and that the perfect storm of “Sadiq Khan doesn’t do very much in office, Conservatives nominate their best candidate, it’s a generally favourable political backdrop for the Conservatives” meant that the 200-to-one odds were worth a pop. 

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In the end we got pretty close to that: Khan hadn’t done very much with his first term. While the extension of the ultra low emission zone and the introduction of the Hopper fare are both good things, that the former is a Conservative initiative and the latter a Liberal Democrat one does, I think, speak to the relative dearth of ideas and momentum from City Hall in Khan’s first term. The overall political backdrop in England was highly favourable to the Conservatives. But the Tory party did not nominate its best candidate, or anything like it. A better opportunity to retake the mayoralty may not recur until or unless there is a Labour government at Westminster again.