Shaun Bailey pulled off an amazing trick this week: he managed to unite Twitter. Left and right, Tory and Labour, Remainer and Brexiteer, all piled into a wondrously crass post by the Tory London mayoral candidate:
‘As a father and husband it breaks me to think that my wife and daughter have to live in fear in their own city. It doesn’t have to be this way. As Mayor, I‘ll ensure that we are working to deliver for the safety of women and girls in London.’
The message would have been in poor taste no matter what the timing. After all, why make crime in London about himself and his family? But coming at a time when a young woman had vanished from the streets of the capital, it looked like Bailey was making a bid to cash in politically on the tragedy.
If this had been the first blemish in an otherwise well-run mayoral campaign, Bailey could be forgiven. Except it’s been terrible from the very start. Bailey is such a bad candidate, it makes you wonder whether the Tories have given up on London completely.
What makes the Bailey candidacy particularly galling is that it shows the party has learnt nothing from the Zac Goldsmith debacle. I remember wandering through Westminster in late 2015 when I bumped into one of Sadiq Khan’s lieutenants.
‘The Goldsmith campaign is going to run heavily on Sadiq’s religion,’ he postulated. ‘It’s going to be Muslim this, Islam that.’
I remember thinking how naïve that was. Surely the Conservatives weren't going to go anywhere near Khan’s religion. How wrong I was. The Tory campaign used dog whistle attacks to suggest London wasn't safe in the hands of a Muslim mayor. Mohammed Amin, chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum, said the intention was to paint Khan as a 'closet extremist’.
In the aftermath of Khan’s crushing victory, it is easy to forget that Goldsmith was (at least on paper) a decent candidate who had a reasonable chance of winning. Goldsmith can be charming and he has an interesting background. His views on the environment are also likely to match those held by many Londoners. Yet his toxic campaign meant all this counted for little. The Tories blew it.
Now they're going to do the same again. So why isn't Boris – who was elected twice in London and used the mayoralty as a springboard to greater things for himself and his party – stepping in? In their obsession with the Red Wall, has the PM and his party forgotten about London?
Outside of the capital, it is Labour which is in the doldrums. Yet when the Tory campaign bus parks itself within the M25, things go badly wrong. Make no mistake: Khan is far from a perfect candidate and is beatable. But Bailey – who keeps on tripping up again and again – makes Khan look like a political titan whose coronation come May is all but inevitable.
The delayed election from last year could easily have handed the Tories an advantage. Londoners had been forced to put up with Khan for another twelve months. Many voters are probably keen for a change. The 2021 election could have been a chance for the Tories to make this point and also reconnect with liberal Tories lost to the parliamentary Brexit wars. Hell, Rory Stewart probably should have been begged to run as the Tory candidate given that he polled 13 per cent as an independent.
But no. Maybe the Tories figure that London has, over the last decade, just become too much of a Labour city. That it isn’t worth the hassle to try and win there any longer. The problem with this view, however, is that the reputational damage Bailey is doing to his party isn't confined to the capital. With each ill-timed smear against Khan, the Tories hammer another nail into the coffin and switch off the type of voter they so badly need, all around the country.
With the Conservatives riding high in the polls, having won the 2019 general election decisively, you may be tempted to say these small hits to the party’s reputation can be weathered. Maybe, for now. But bear in mind that this way of thinking is how parties who once seemed electorally infallible start to fall. They become slack about their hold on power. And eventually they pay the price.
If the Tories really don’t care about winning in London, fair enough: they should run someone bland and inoffensive as their candidate. Perhaps they should reward a hard-working councillor whom they can trust not to say or do anything stupid. Instead, the Tories have put their faith in Shaun Bailey, a man who is sure to lose and sure to do huge damage to the Tory brand in the process.