At first glance the Conservatives have little chance of defeating Labour incumbent Sadiq Khan at next May’s election for London Mayor: their party is far behind Labour in national opinion polls and has been tending to lag further behind it in the capital; at last year’s borough elections their overall vote share shrank and although they gained control of two councils from Labour, they lost three flagships to them and lost over 100 seats to various parties in total; their membership and activist organisation in the capital is still nowhere near as formidable as Labour’s.
Even so, the government’s decision to change the traditional electoral system from supplementary vote to first past the post – thereby depriving Londoners of the right to support a second preference candidate for Mayor – will probably help the Conservatives. And there is no doubting the desire of at least some Tory figures in the capital to capture the mayoralty. A few have begun making public how they think it might be done. In addition, a number of individuals have signalled their interest, to varying degrees, in becoming the Conservative candidate.
One of the latter is London Assembly member Nick Rogers, who represents the South West constituency (Richmond, Kingston and Hounslow). Writing for On London Rogers has, not for the first time, urged his party to recognise that many voters seem to be shedding the long standing tradition of leaning further to the right as they get older. London, as a “millennial city” is the place to start putting that right. He believes the Tories must speak with a “stridently positive” voice and run an upbeat campaign.
At the website Conservative Home, former Hammersmith & Fulham councillor Harry Phibbs, who follows his party’s London government activity closely, wrote last month that “London Conservatives are planning to make the next Mayoral and Assembly elections a referendum on ULEZ [Ultra Low Emission Zone] expansion”.
Phibbs argues that it is a mobilising issue which could combat outer London apathy and persuade some non-Tory supporters to “lend” the party their votes, although a YouGov poll he cites to demonstrate the strength of Londoners’ feeling against Khan’s plan was commissioned by the Assembly Conservatives and rather tendentiously characterised the purpose of the anti-pollution policy as being “to generate additional revenue for Transport for London”. A poll by the same company commissioned by City Hall produced very different findings.
Also at Conservative Home the businessman Michael Liebreich, who was a member of the Transport for London board under Boris Johnson, has written two articles about how the Tories can beat Khan, claiming “his record as Mayor is execrable” but simply saying so won’t be enough.
Liebreich has been working with political strategist Alex Crowley, who helped Johnson win in 2008 and 2012. In his first piece he says his and Crowley’s analysis has shown that at the last mayoral election in 2021, “boroughs with populations that were whiter, older, and with higher levels of home ownership were more likely to vote for the Conservative mayoral candidate”, as was the case when Johnson won.
At the same time, Khan has been able to “increase the turnout in key parts of the Labour coalition”, has “made inroads into the traditional Conservatives base” and has picked up support in areas with the highest levels of highly educated people.
“The bottom line is that no Conservative candidate can win in London by appealing only to traditional core Conservative voters,” he concludes and in his second piece says the next Tory candidate must make London’s economy and, related to that, improving London’s environment (“an economic necessity”) the top priorities. Liebreich believes the relative closeness of the 2021 mayoral election result compared with what opinion polls were indicating should give the Tories hope.
In early February, when the two articles were published, Liebreich and Crowley had not begun testing any specific policy proposals. Perhaps they will have done that by the time the Tories start their process for selecting a candidate for 2024 – a job they will want to have done in time for their annual conference in October. The candidate will be chosen by party members in London, though any mechanism for drawing up longlists and shortlists hasn’t yet been made public and neither has a timetable.
Two people have said they are definitely interested in going up against Khan for the Tories: the London Assembly’s experienced Andrew Boff, who finished second in the selection contest last time, and Welwyn Hatfield councillor Samuel Kasumu, who was special adviser for civil society and communities for Prime Minister Johnson but resigned in protest. Sutton & Cheam MP and Minister for London Paul Scully has hinted at being interested. Nick Rogers has said he is thinking about it.
London Conservatives think out loud about how to beat Sadiq Khan