On the day I met Susan Hall for lunch, a new poll had put the Conservative candidate just three percentage points behind Sadiq Khan in the race to be the next mayor of London. She did not seem surprised. “There was a previous one that had us one point behind.” That poll also suggested that, should Jeremy Corbyn run as an independent and split the left vote in May 2024 – when the election will for the first time be held under first past the post – Hall would comfortably beat the incumbent Khan, who is seeking a historic third term. “To be honest with you, knocking on doors for the past year, I knew it was within reach, because Khan’s making so many mistakes.”
It is an unexpected set of circumstances that has made Hall a genuine contender for the London mayoralty. The 68-year-old former hairdresser from north London was by no means the favourite to become the Tory nominee. First Paul Scully, the minister for London, who was widely assumed to be the frontrunner, failed to make the shortlist. Then one of the remaining three candidates, the former David Cameron aide Daniel Korski, was forced to drop out after multiple women accused him of sexual misconduct (which he denies). Hall, who has 17 years’ experience as a London councillor in Harrow and then as a member of the London Assembly, had only an unknown criminal barrister with no record in politics (Moz Hossain) left to beat.
Her candidacy raises an interesting question for the Conservatives, whose tactic in London has generally been to choose liberal candidates in the hope of appealing to more left-wing voters. If they wanted to run an experiment to see if a traditional right-wing Tory could ever win the capital, they couldn’t have picked a better test subject than Hall, who supported both Liz Truss and Donald Trump.
Her headline pledges are to cancel the recent expansion of the Ultra-Low Emission Zone (Ulez) “on day one”, as she repeated multiple times, and to take a tougher stance on law and order. She wants to see “more old-fashioned policing”, is scathing about activists in “defund the police” T-shirts in the wake of the shooting of Chris Kaba by a Met officer in September 2022, and thinks police shouldn’t be seen wearing rainbow flag badges or “dancing around with protesters”.
“The way the police are treated at times is absolutely disgraceful,” Hall said. “It’s very difficult to deal with, but if we don’t we’re going to have a society that is unmanageable for the police and for discipline – and we all need some forms of discipline in our lives.”
Hall’s discipline extends to keeping a close eye on the budget of her campaign (“The donors have made their money and worked hard for it so every penny must be spent properly”), but not to her Twitter feed. She has liked and retweeted posts on a range of controversial subjects: an Enoch Powell meme with the caption “it’s never too late to get London back”; a post stoking conspiracy theories of electoral fraud as the votes for the 2020 US election were being counted; a 2019 tweet by Katie Hopkins calling Khan “the nipple height mayor of Londonistan” (Hall replied “thank you Katie!” – a tweet that has now been deleted).
Hall appeared unshaken by the backlash. “I knew they would get a hold of all my tweets,” she said brusquely, claiming she didn’t even remember some of the examples. “I love Twitter, I’m a serial Twitterer! And so I like far too much stuff. You’ll understand, sometimes you like things, you don’t even read them properly.” I carefully acknowledge that yes, sometimes people do like tweets as they are scrolling without reading the full context – although usually not those who are running for top political jobs. “It’s what normal people do! Or maybe we’re not normal, Rachel. What do you think?”
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Hall, who complimented me on my nail varnish (hers is a bright sky blue) and wanted to know all about how my house move was going, is clearly bidding for the “normal people” vote. She has lived in London all her life, growing up and then raising her own family in the north-west borough of Harrow. Her father was a mechanic (“He came from one of 13 children and clawed his way up to look after his family”). Hall worked in his garage as a teenager after he died, then married and started a hairdressing salon with her (now former) husband, with whom she has two children, now grown up. She told me about travelling home from a night out clubbing in the early hours of the morning when she was young (“I used to drive a little old Fiat 127”) and thinks London needs to get its nightlife back or “all our young people will move out”.
Her eyes lit up when she talked about the city (“the architecture… the cobbled streets, Big Ben!”), which she said “needs to be loved”. “Like The Repair Shop on telly, where you get an item that’s been loved… it’s a teddy, it’s missing an ear, its nose has come unravelled. It goes into that place and it comes out… repaired and healed. It’s fabulous. If I could do that to London, I’d be so happy.”
So I asked what London’s missing teddy bear ears are, which got us back to Hall’s main talking points: waging war on 20mph zones, low-traffic neighbourhoods and the Ulez expansion. She admitted that the latter would mean £200m missing from Transport for London’s budget, but believed she could “easily” find the money elsewhere (“We must look at the pension scheme of TfL workers”).
Opposition to Ulez proved effective in the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election in July, where the Conservatives achieved a surprise win over Labour. But its resonance is likely to decrease now it has been introduced, as most drivers realise they won’t actually be liable for the £12.50 daily charge (TfL estimates that nine out of ten cars in the capital are Ulez-compliant). Hall has already identified her next target: road charging. “That’s clearly [Khan’s] next move. Everybody thinks, ‘Well if I’ve got a compliant car I’m safe.’ They’re not safe! Because the next thing he wants to do is bring in pay per mile and he’s actually employed people to look at the software for that already.”
This is a bit of an exaggeration: Khan’s 2018 transport strategy does say he will “investigate proposals for the next generation of road user charging systems”, but conversations around road pricing have been going on for years (Boris Johnson talked about it) and the House of Commons Transport Committee has been doing similar work. There is consensus that the required technology does not yet exist – not that this will prevent it being used to attack Khan as anti-motorist.
Speaking of Johnson, apparently London’s only former Conservative mayor phoned Hall to ask if he could help her at all. “He has got an aura about him that I’ve never seen from anyone else,” she said. “If you could buy it, it would be priceless because he can walk into a room and people stop and listen.” But in this campaign, Hall wants to be the one listening. She’s touring the capital speaking to businesses and residents to try to find out what they care about most – she quizzed me on what would make me feel safer as a woman in London and asked me to let her know if my friends had any ideas. She accused Khan, whom she said had never properly spoken to her, of being more interested in trying “to sell his book” (Breathe: Tackling the Climate Emergency) and getting a post-politics job at a global environmental charity than he is in running London.
Her brand of Conservatism, she said, is “pick ’n’ mix – I’m not on any particular side of the party”. She cited Margaret Thatcher as an inspiration but insisted she wasn’t the right-wing caricature her Twitter history suggests (“Sometimes when I’ve been questioned, I think I know what you’re trying to portray me as. Don’t do that… I’m not what you think I am”). In the week that Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary (who also grew up in Harrow), declared that “multiculturalism has failed”, Hall was glowing about the capital’s vibrancy and diversity. “Everywhere you go you hear different languages being spoken and it’s like a mixing pot. I’m sure I shouldn’t use that term, but it’s good though!”
Can she win? Even as the Tories falter in the national polls, the race in London is shaping up to be far tighter than expected, not least due to the new voting system. “Polls go up and down,” Hall admitted, but she insisted that was not what was making her confident. “At times I’ve had people say, ‘I won’t vote Conservative – but I will vote for you.’ ”