THERE was a table in the heights of City Hall on Friday evening with a pizza, some tins of Red Stripe and bags of Chicken Cottage, a mirage of sorts for those waiting for the never-ending mayoral election count to reach its final declaration. The story goes, however, that if you tried to lift refreshment from this table, then an important-looking man would appear and ward you off. No – that’s being saved for Zac Goldsmith, was his explanation.
Whether Zac Goldsmith really consoled himself with low rent fried chicken and a lager, I cannot tell you definitively, but as Friday turned to Saturday, it conjured up an image of a man who may have wished he had never got into this mayoral election lark: he’d lost, he fronted a campaign condemned by claims of dog whistles and division, and now there was a miserable bag of cold Chicken Cottage waiting for him when he came upstairs from the results ceremony.
It was a drab end to a mess of a mayoral election, lacking in imagination and animation on all sides. Yes, the city may feel proud and righteous that it has elected its first Muslim mayor, especially at a time when extremists from here to Raqqa are trying so hard to divide us. But even the winner’s campaign lacked spark, dulled as it was by constant caution. A good example: the New Journal‘s Thin Red Line investigation showed the outgoing administration has risked public safety with some striking cuts to London’s fire service, but, with the goal open, Sadiq Khan’s response was timid. Can you remember his bold ideas for protecting the Brigade? The onus is on him now to say much more.
He rolled off promises for a more affordable, greener, safer city, as all mayoral candidates do, but at stages it seemed like he wanted to compete with Goldsmith for who could say the least. He dithered on a few issues, and even changed his mind outright on some, defaulting, when the ground got testing, to his go-to card of sedating us with the relentless reminder that he wasn’t just a slick lawyer with high political ambition, but a bus driver’s son. Labour has, of course, already had a mayor from a working class background, and with each telling Khan seemed to be risking somebody at some stage, perhaps the guy behind the wheel on the 253, saying: Oi Sadiq, you know there’s nothing wrong with being a bus driver.
But despite all of this Labour had looked at the scores from last year’s general election, calculated it was in the lead in London and would win as long as the wounds it self-inflicts each week were not too deep and, remembered wherever possible to show us they hadn’t forgotten the city is torn by a housing crisis, which in reality no mayor can solve alone.
The reserved nature of Khan and his campaign makes the Goldsmith campaign even more curious for not at least trying to go head-to-head on policy. Instead by trying to manacle Khan to his past defending unsavoury characters in court, as most lawyers do at some stage, and sharing platforms at meetings with possibly even more unsavoury ones, it made the Conservative campaign seem like it was losing a sense of perspective.
It could have been bolder and turned it into a debate about who said the most, not the least, drawing Khan out of his comfort zone campaign; instead the shove towards hints and innuendo about extremism, easily reduced to a play on fear, is what Labour will make sure the Tory campaign is remembered for. This criticism isn’t just the view of the triumphant Labour winners, however. Andrew Boff left City Hall growling that the strategy could do lasting damage to community relations for the Tories. Other Conservatives have made similar criticisms.
There are bigoted people who will never vote for a Muslim even if they’re running for nothing more than a school governor role, but trying to nudge floating voters into the idea that their rival was wrapped up in some kind of plot to aid extremists was beyond the pale for many. It all got a great airing in some newspapers, whose influence to affect the vote in London at least seems to be waning with each passing election, but backfired spectacularly as people wondered where the guy who was going to talk intelligently about the environment had got lost.
Conservative MP Greg Hands was on the BBC’s Politics Show yesterday insisting that Khan’s background wasn’t an issue discussed on the doorstep as if it wasn’t really worth talking about in the post-mortem, but that just serves to pose more questions as to why the campaign went down that avenue at all. One of Mr Goldsmith’s strengths was meant to be his gentlemanly disposition; following Boris Johnson’s bawdy showboating style with a respectful politeness. Whether it was his decision to target Khan in this way or not, it was suddenly hard to square the nature of the campaign with the genial smoothie that he had been on the billing. It was hard enough trying to win as a Euro-sceptic in a city constituency which the opinion polls show is generally in favour of staying in the EU next month, but this was all becoming a step too far. Whoever’s clunky idea it was to send a racially-profiled leaflet to residents with Asian-sounding names, suggesting things like their family jewellery would only be safe with the Tories, was surely departing from the original script of the affable environmentalist who would provide a bit more seriousness following Johnson’s raffish eight years.
And what of Goldsmith’s well-mannered civility? Rightly or wrongly, I doubt this will be the attribute which the Conservatives will search for in their next mayoral candidate. He naively allowed Khan to interrupt him at hustings and on TV debates, to the extent everybody had gone home before we heard his answer. At times, amazingly enough for a candidate asking to be Mayor, he seemed shy, or too deferential, which allowed people to read his style as sheepish, or to mistake patience for lethargy. These City Hall elections, as we’ve seen every time before, are a pretty uncompromising street fight, but Goldsmith, as each week passed, began to look more like a man who’d brought a lance to a shootout.
And all of a sudden, the obvious choice to be the Conservatives mayoral candidate seemed anything but. Worse still, with a gulp and a half-smile, he came across as a man who just wanted the whole thing to be over, who wanted to get out of City Hall and put the whole thing behind him; to get to his Chicken Cottage before it got much colder.