The spectre of the 2016 mayoral campaign still hangs over the capital’s Tories.
The crass, dog-whistle tactics deployed by Zac Goldsmith’s team failed to prevent Sadiq Khan receiving more votes than any of his predecessors, and left a bad taste in Londoners’ mouths that remains even now. The memory clearly weighs heavy on the three Conservative candidates vying to take on Khan in 2020, and may well have served to ensure that this year’s line-up is the most diverse the party has ever fielded: a grandchild of Windrush migrants, a gay man and a female immigrant.
All three candidates – Shaun Bailey, Andrew Boff and Joy Morrissey – agree that the previous campaign was “unfortunate” (to put it mildly) and, unsurprisingly, they also agree that Khan is doing a bad job. Criticisms range from him “doing down” London to having created a “black hole” in Transport for London’s finances, to questioning the Labour mayor’s stances on crime reduction and housebuilding.
“We need to get control over [TfL] ASAP, but I have no sense that [Khan] is trying to get it sorted,” says Boff. “Actually TfL calls the shots on many occasions. What I will be doing is splitting TfL up between operational and investment arms, so we can bare down on costs – that has to be the number one priority.”
Bailey echoes this view. “[Khan] has made a huge hole in TfL’s finances and that will be tough for anyone to solve,” he says. Bailey believes one of the reasons for the London exodus is because of the poor management of commuter transport and because Khan has “spent the whole time telling people how bad things are”.
There is also a broad agreement that housing and crime, particularly knife crime, are top priorities for any mayor – but they have very different plans for tackling these issues, particularly housing.
Adoptive Londoner Morrissey – who moved to the capital from America to study – believes stamp duty and council tax should come under the mayor’s remit. As a renter, she developed “an obsession” with housing to the extent she was planning a PhD on the topic, approaching pension funds to see if they would be willing to fund private-public partnerships to build more social housing.
“There is land available, pension funds want a long-term rate of return and having secure, affordable rent with people staying long-term is beneficial to both,” she says. “It’s a convergence of interests”.
Her other big idea on housing is to make huge swathes of unused land publicly owned, in order to speed up development. Once developed, they could be sold off “capturing the value for the public good and allowing it to be built on relatively quickly,” she says. “That way you’d maximise value for Londoners rather than developers.”
Boff, who is seeking the Conservative nomination for a fourth time, takes a different approach, arguing the mayor is “very good at talking to large developers who are interested in very large pieces of land – Bellway and Barratt and all the rest of it – but has no capacity to talk to Bob the Builder who wants to build two homes.
“When I become mayor people will have the right to build on that land without passing initial capital costs,” he says. “This means that self-builders in London… would be able to build their own grand design for £160k, which would really do a lot for people who want to own their own home in London.”
Boff believes local authorities, rather than developers, are sitting on “chunks of land”, forcing prices up. “We need to remove the right for them to say: ‘No, don’t build on this land’. Establish the right for Londoners to build on unplanned and surplus land,” he says.
Bailey is particularly critical of Khan’s record on family housing, pledging to alleviate planning restrictions as one of the major hurdles for housing. He argues that Khan’s London Plan blocks building on “strategic industrial land”, pushing development towards the outer edges of the capital.
As David Cameron’s one-time special adviser on youth and crime, Bailey is particularly vocal on the knife crime epidemic, with more than 50 people fatally stabbed in London since the start of the year.
“Black, white, rich, poor, gay, straight – the level of crime is incredibly worrying and affects us all,” he says. Once again, he points the finger of blame at Khan and vows to cut the budget for “policing bureaucrats” to put more bobbies on the beat.
He sees a thriving business community as another way to drive down crime, pointing not just to the affect having a stake in society has but also the emergence of new “tech firms that can be used directly for policing”.
Morrissey, a mother of one, also believes she has a particular take on the issue and plans to “reprioritise frontline policing”, as well as introducing knife arches and knife wands in all public places.
“If you’re a parent you want to be able to send kids to school without worrying they are going to be harassed, or have to secretly carry a knife because they are afraid,” she says. Morrissey wants “a New York approach to frontline policing”, suggesting that the Met works more closely with surrounding boroughs so “criminals can’t just skirt outside the county lines”.
Boff says he would hold a monthly violence commission “until we have seen violence halved” – and he includes domestic violence as well as knife crime. To do that, he believes the mayor would need multi-agency support from schools, social services, councils and NGOs, with the mayor “sitting at the centre”. “If anybody tells you they will solve violence on their own they are talking through their arse,” he says.
All three candidates claim they will engage with the City more than Khan, who despite his campaign pledge to be the most business-friendly mayor yet, has frustrated pressure groups by his lack of involvement.
“Sadiq is seen as Corbyn’s man, and that is the biggest threat on the horizon for the next 10 to 15 years,” says Bailey, stressing he would have regular meetings and an advisory group for business. “If you are going to be for the City you need to listen to the City… As an ex-Number 10 adviser I know how the central government mechanism works, which is vital to championing the City’s message.”
“My expertise adds to that,” says Bailey. “You need to package it up in a way that politicians can respond.”
Morrissey – who is backed by arch-Remain MP Stephen Hammond as well as pro-Leave minister Andrea Leadsom – recognises the challenges posed by the next few years. “We need to keep London as the financial centre of the world. I don’t want to see any financial services leaving the City,” she says. The mayor must think “how can we make it more appealing after Brexit, for small businesses and for large” as well as reassuring the millions of EU citizens “that they are part of London”.
Boff is more outspoken, saying the government’s approach needs “bolstering” if it is to safeguard the City.
“Business is our bread and butter,” the Leave-voter says. “I think the Single Market for services is something that would be in London’s interests and as mayor it’s going to be my job to speak up for London’s interests. It’s unfortunate that Chequers is almost silent on services.”
“As mayor it’s about London, nothing else,” he adds. “I want the best for my city and if I see the government not doing its best I will challenge it.”