What is the point of Shaun Bailey's mayoral campaign?

It might be time for Sadiq Khan's Tory challenger to start mentioning Brexit.

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Shaun Bailey, the Tory candidate for mayor of London, thinks he knows how to slow the Sadiq Khan juggernaut: attack the incumbent on knife crime, and paint him as a self-interested part-timer. 

Those were the lines hammered home again and again in Bailey’s speech to the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester this afternoon. Here’s a typical passage: “What London really needs is a full time mayor, someone focused on making the city a safer place to live. Whose ambition is not to improve their own public image, but to lift up millions of people in London and show them that they have another choice.” 

Will it work? Polls do show that Londoners are more dissatisfied than ever with Khan – whose approval rating slipped into the red in July – and worried about knife crime. But, as Stephen has noted, those same polls also show that most Londoners believe that the spike in stabbings is the fault of central, not local government. 

So the slump in Khan’s popularity is likely to have much more to do with the slump in the popularity of his party than it does the vagaries of his record in office. And that fall in support for Labour is largely down to an issue Bailey did not mention at all: Brexit. 

It’s for that reason that the second prong of Bailey’s attack on Khan – that he is more interested in his cultivating his own brand than he is running London – doesn’t make an awful lot of sense. Even if you accept the basic premise of the argument, most of Khan’s 2016 coalition would be delighted to hear that their mayor was spending lots of time banging the drum for Remain and criticising Donald Trump. It is less clear that they want to hear him talking really, really tough on crime, as Bailey appears to think they do. 

Then there is the question of what voters who backed Zac Goldsmith in 2016 want. Of the 14 boroughs the Tories won last time, only four of them – Bexley, Havering, Hillingdon and Sutton – voted Leave. It is safe to assume that Bailey is going to bleed a hell of a lot of votes to the Liberal Democrats in places like Kingston, Richmond, Kensington – and, if Jo Swinson’s internal polling is to be believed, Barnet, the City, and Westminster. These socially liberal voters are unlikely to be won over by thrash ‘em and lash ‘em rhetoric on policing, even if it does come with a set of greenish pledges on clean air. Sensible Tory MPs know this, and privately concede that Bailey could well come third. But those Remainers also aren’t certain to back Khan in a two-horse race.

Given that Bailey is running in London – not that many voters have noticed – his reluctance to mention Brexit at all is understandable. But is it necessarily prudent? With his opposition fragmented and a large chunk of the votes the Tories won in 2016 probably gone for good, there may well be something to be said for aping his party’s national strategy: consolidating the Leave vote (more Londoners voted Leave than for Khan in 2016). CCHQ’s favoured attack line against Khan – that he wants to cancel Brexit – has always looked like a dogwhistle for marginal constituencies in the provinces, rather than one intended for consumption in London. But, looking at Bailey’s current performance, it is increasingly hard to argue that he’d be doing noticeably worse if he started parroting it.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.