Melanie McDonagh

In defence of Shaun Bailey

In defence of Shaun Bailey
Conservative London Mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey, picture credit: Getty
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It’s possible I am alone in not minding about Shaun Bailey’s observations during the hunt for poor Sarah Everard. Before her body was found, he tweeted that ‘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.’

Was that wrong? We saw last night at that catastrophically mismanaged vigil at Clapham Common that women’s safety is a live issue. The subject of women living in fear was all anyone could talk about at the time, and ever since. His critics say that he was making capital about an unfortunate woman’s disappearance, which we now know to be murder. But if the issue of the day – the only issue – is, was, how women can be safer on the streets, then ‘working to deliver for the safety of women and girls in London’ was speaking to the point.

Yet the PM’s press person, Allegra Stratton, when asked repeatedly, couldn’t be induced to say that Boris was standing by his party’s mayoral candidate. Instead, journalists were referred to Shaun Bailey’s office. Is that how the PM stands by a black Tory mayoral candidate…by hanging him out to dry?

But then it’s the fashion to diss Shaun Bailey. The standard objection from most pundits is that he’s too socially conservative for London. Well, among some communities, social conservatism is perfectly fine. And not everyone has the mindset of a BLM/trans activist; in the outer boroughs of London people are different from Crouch End or Islington, and they’re open to, you know, Conservatives, because they actually vote them into parliament.

Shaun Bailey’s great merit is that he has a convincing back story, having grown up in one of those challenging North Kensington communities that few Tories emerge from; his grandparents were Windrush generation Jamaicans. He was a youth worker for some years. When he talks about knife crime, gang violence and drugs, he knows his stuff. And given London’s catastrophic record of knife crime, affecting disproportionately young black men, that matters.

There was an interesting little exchange a week or so ago when he voiced doubts about proposals for a basic income because it didn’t take the human condition into account; he knew people who’d spend the money on drugs. Up popped Karen Buck, MP for Westminster North: ‘many of my constituents rely on benefits …They know much more about how to budget … than any Tory politician does.’ That reflexive dig, which would have worked nicely with say, Zac Goldsmith, the previous Tory mayoral candidate, didn’t cut it. Shaun Bailey’s office observed that since he had been homeless and out of work, he wasn’t taking any lectures from ‘career politicians.’ Given how exercised everyone purports to be about diversity, he combines the social and ethnic elements… that is surely a good thing, no?

He’s not a natural orator like Ken Livingstone, nor as intelligent as Boris but you know, Sadiq Khan, though a very personable individual, is not an intellectual Titan either, though as a political fixer, he’s out on his own. But Shaun Bailey has other merits, notably a certain integrity and a stubborn unwillingness to be pushed around. And, let me say it again, he’s representative of a community and social class that the Tories don’t really talk to.

But if you’re going to choose a candidate who’s not standard-issue, then you’ve got to back him up and give him support. So far, that support has been abysmally wanting. He’s way behind Sadiq in the polls (a Redfield Wilton poll showed him on 25 per cent against 51 per cent for the incumbent) but that may have something to do with the fact that the party hasn’t actually taken ownership of him as they did with, say, Zac Goldsmith, or at least, not so you'd notice. There’s talk that his funding has been pulled because they’ve simply given up on him. Certainly I’ve only received one election leaflet put out by his office.

Granted, Covid postponed the mayoral election for a year – not that anyone noticed – but that, you’d think, would be a chance for the brains of the party (don’t say it) to get his policies pat, sort out a coherent mayoral strategy on environmental issues, conservation, transport (Transport for London’s indebtedness is a huge problem) and planning (post Covid, there has to be a way to curb developers’ willingness to plaster the capital with hideous luxury developments and push for tall buildings as if people were still, you know, all in offices, rather than working from home). Then there’s the challenges for the City from Brexit – the financial sector was stuffed in the Brexit deal.

Sadiq’s record on most of these things – and knife and gang crime – has been thoroughly unimpressive, though there was a certain amount of humour, if you like farce, from his handling of the celebrated Kensington High Street cycle lanes. He should be a vulnerable incumbent.

But did the party groom Shaun Bailey (in a good way) and throw their people at his presentation and policies during that extra year? Nope. And now it seems they can’t put enough distance between themselves and him. Number Ten would probably have been more at ease with Rory Stewart, the flaky Old Etonian.

When he loses as he seems bound to, I hope the party makes up to Mr Bailey for putting him up, then walking away. Perhaps he might, for once, be given a winnable constituency next time he stands for parliament, rather than a Labour safe seat – Kensington rather than Hammersmith; Beckenham rather than Penge. But meanwhile, perhaps Boris might recognise that having been London mayor twice, he has something to bring to this particular party. He won, so the guff about London being unwinnable for the Tories plainly isn’t true. Maybe once he can emerge from his captivity in his own home, he could get out there and support his candidate? Right now the tactic of distancing himself from the Tory in this race makes him look unprincipled.