London Tories Are At War Over Divisive Conservative Mayoral Hopeful
London Tory mayoral candidate Susan Hall and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (Alamy)
The Tory decision to field Susan Hall to fight the London mayoral election in May has opened yet another chasm in the divided party, with some Conservatives in the capital complaining that a real opportunity to defeat "beatable" Labour incumbent Sadiq Khan has been squandered.
Hall, selected as the Tory candidate in July, has been a Member of the London Assembly since 2017 where she has served as the Conservative leader. Since defying expectations to defeat better-known candidates, including former minister Paul Scully and former Boris Johnson advisor Samuel Kasumu, to secure the Conservative mayoral candidacy, she has faced criticism for her declarations of support for Donald Trump and her engagement with extreme right-wing content on social media.
Hall's supporters have leapt to her defence, however, arguing that she is a "formidable" challenger who is better placed to win on a Tory ticket than someone with closer links to the severely damaged brand of Rishi Sunak's national Conservative party, which has trailed Labour in the polls for over a year.
Khan, first elected to City Hall in 2016 and currently serving his second term, is favourite to secure another four years when London goes to the polls on Thursday, 2 May. A YouGov survey published in November put the former Labour MP for Tooting a massive twenty-five per cent ahead of Hall, although Khan has cautiously insisted he does not believe the recent polling.
The level of frustration among London Tories who aren't backing Hall is so high that Scully, the current Conservative MP for Sutton, Cheam & Worcester Park, had been considering resigning the party whip in order to run as an independent mayoral candidate in the capital. PoliticsHome understands however that he will not be entering the race against Hall, due to a lack of resources.
"In reality, it's not going to happen," said a source familiar with his thinking. But the fact that he strongly considered running against his own party — reports of which earned him a meeting with Chief Whip Simon Hart earlier this week — reflects the depth of despair among many over Conservative Campaign Headquarters' (CCHQ) decision to give Hall the nod.
Tories like Scully believe that Khan is a vulnerable incumbent whose record on crime and Transport for London, as well as his hugely contentious decision to expand the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), could be exploited much more effectively by a stronger Conservative candidate. The ULEZ issue in particular was successfully weaponised to narrowly defeat Labour in last summer's Uxbridge by-election.
“He could have been very beatable, but now it’s going to be a very heavy defeat [for the Conservatives]," one Tory MP told PoliticsHome.
Guto Harri, the former City Hall director of external affairs, who worked for Johnson when he was London Mayor, before serving as his director of communications in Downing Street, was scathing of Hall and believed Khan would only win "by default" in May.
“I am astonished that we didn’t find a stronger pool of prospective candidates and I am shocked that they whittled them down to such a poor choice," he told PoliticsHome.
"How did the party — one of the most successful election-winning forces in the history of politics — end up picking such a weak opponent to a mediocre incumbent Mayor?”.
Harri said he was “almost depressed” that as he saw it, the party’s high command had not taken the real importance nor possibility of defeating Khan seriously enough. He felt the contest could have been an opportunity for the Conservatives to “knock the wind out of [Keir Starmer’s] sails”, and challenge the narrative that the UK had already decided it wants Labour at the next general election, which must be called this year. Instead Harri predicts Khan “is going to walk” to a third successive victory in the capital.
A former minister agreed with Harri, saying that a strong Tory showing in London this Spring could have served as a "stepping stone" for recovery before the general election.
Team Khan insists that the May election is going to be close. They estimate that up to fifteen per cent of Londoners do not have valid ID, which they worry could impact five per cent of their vote, while the shift to First Past The Post means the Labour Mayor does not have the "insurance blanket" of second prefences votes which helped him to victory over Conservative cansdidate Shaun Bailey in 2020. A source close to Khan felt it is very possible that a "hard-right Tory candidate will win the mayoralty".
But Hall's Tory detractors complain that her support for Brexit and apparent endorsement of Trump will make her an unpalatable Conservative option for many people in Remain-voting, cosmopolitan London – especially younger voters.
Attacks on Khan's "war on motorists" have formed a key pillar of Hall's messaging so far, but critical Tories complain that this disproportionately steers her campaign to outer areas of the capital, where opposition to ULEZ is generally stronger, and isolates voters they need to reach in central boroughs.
One activist said they felt the campaign had failed to pay enough attention to what they described as “Henrys" — high-earning-not-rich-yet younger people in areas closer to central London like Clapham, south London.
James Cowling of Next Gen Tories, a grassroots organisation which campaigns for the Conservatives to prioritise issues facing young people, said Tories in London needed to promote a "more holistic solution on transport rather than a motorist Vs public debate" in order to help themselves "realign" with under-45s in the capital.
But Hall's supporters have sought to rubbish claims that she is neglecting key areas and major demographics in London.
“It’s demonstrably untrue that she only campaigns in outer London," said one Tory source, who pointed to the fact that she would be knocking on doors in Westminster this weekend.
Another Tory source said Hall's critics in the parliamentary party had failed to recognise why she was the most popular choice with Conservative party members in London, who are particularly impressed by her "formidable" performances in the London Assembly. “She takes Khan to task every single time, she takes chunks out of him," they told PoliticsHome.
The same source added that the fact that Hall isn't a Westminster politician actually puts her at an advantage because it is much easier for her to distance herself from the unpopular national party brand than it would have been for prospective candidates with close ties to leading party figures.
“In the context of the national political situation, a lot of members felt we needed someone on the outside who didn’t have a target on their back like a minister or MP might have," they said.
Hall does have some Westminster Tories on her side, however, including Bob Blackman, the Conservative MP for Harrow East, who is chairing the Hall campaign, while London Tory MPs Theresa Villiers, Louis French, Steve Tuckwell and Chris Philp are all significantly involved. Unlike previous Tory mayoral candidates who have rented their own office space Hall is running her campaign from CCHQ, which a campaign source said demonstrates a much greater collaboration than usual between the central party and the Greater London Authority.
But disgruntled Tories are still left wondering what the party's prospects in London would have looked like three months out from the vote had CCHQ persuaded James Cleverly, the current home secretary, or former policing minister Kit Malthouse to swap Westminster for a battle with Khan. They are especially critical of Greg Hands, the then-Conservative Party chairman, who they argue should have restarted the selection process when Daniel Korski, a former No 10 adviser, was forced to withdraw from the race over allegations of inappropriate behaviour towards women, which he denies.
"The process was broken and [Hands] had an opportunity to do something, and he didn't," one Conservative backbencher complained. "It made us look stupid."
Hall's backers, though, remain unperturbed, and insist she can spring a surprise victory when 2 May comes around.
“It’s almost been like a bit of a start-up for Susan," said one Tory source.
"She has come from being dismissed as a candidate by some quarters, to winning her way to the top of a crowded field of Tory rivals to become the woman challenging one of the most famous politicians in the country.”
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