Zac Goldsmith is a nice man. Everyone says so, from ex-brother-in-law Imran Khan to many of the environmental activists and Green Party types that he has campaigned alongside for years. He is also rich, good looking and well connected – all attributes that usually help grease the wheels of a political career. Sadiq Khan, on the other hand, has a habit of inspiring an almost visceral level of personal dislike in his enemies. And yet, in just nine days – barring a polling upset greater even than last May’s – it is Khan who will be taking up office in City Hall.
It is a credit to Khan that he saw off an impressive pack of rivals for his party’s nomination. He faced not only Blairite darling Tessa Jowell but, at a time when Labour was switching to the hard left, a Corbynite challenge from Diane Abbott. The reason for his success in that caucus – and the secret to his probable success in May – is his real ability to strategise and to deliver relentlessly focused ground campaigns. This quality – which has also helped him turn Tooting from a Tory target to a safe(ish) stronghold – has enabled him to see off the same, Lynton Crosby authored tactics that so buried Ed Miliband last year. He mixes the sentimentality of the soft Left (winning him real admiration from London lefties) with a ruthlessness that was sorely lacking in Miliband’s campaign for Number 10.
There are still paths to victory for Jimmy Goldsmith’s son. Tory turnout may be higher than expected, as was the case in the General Election. People may be telling pollsters and canvassers that they support Sadiq out of embarrassment or a fear of being perceived as racist. But these feel like the sort of straws that one must clutch at if one is the candidate or a member of his close team, not the reasonable conclusions of the dispassionate observer. So what would the consequences be of the expected result?
For Zac, this will prove to be (at least in the short to medium term) a personal and political disaster. He will not just have lost but will have lost having fought his campaign in a style that sits ill with his reputation as a kind and thoughtful liberal conservative. The insinuations about Khan’s relationships with extremists and the racially segmented messaging on which Goldsmith has built much of his pitch to the public do not look like they have cut through. If Goldsmith can scrape a victory perhaps it will all be obscured by the glow of success. If he loses, there will be op-eds aplenty lecturing the Richmond MP on how London just isn’t that kind of city. British politics loves to kick a man when he’s down and, without a canny strategy for rehabilitation, Goldsmith may find himself dragged under by the sheer weight of his campaign’s crassness.
A victory for Labour in London is, on the other hand, very good news for Jeremy Corbyn. It will distract (a bit) from the loss of an expected 150 council seats and will neuter the inevitable grumbling from the backbenches. Oh, they’ll still complain, but it will help Corbyn avoid the mess of an attempted coup. He is also bolstered by the (ill-advised) way in which his internal opponents have tried to tie him to Khan; witness the extraordinary attacks on the Labour candidate by Labour peer Alan Sugar, in which Sadiq is accused of creating the Corbyn leadership. They can’t have it both ways and so if it is a Khan Mayorality some of that success, inevitably, rubs off on the beleaguered Labour Leader.
In the end, though, the defining characteristic of this Mayoral race will surely be its quietness. Timing hasn’t helped – with big, existential questions like our place in Europe being debated at the same time – but the limitations of the office itself surely play a part. The Mayor of London has a complicated, messy and constrained set of powers that rub up against both central and local government in ways that often reduce the job to a bully pulpit. It is interesting that – thanks to the Northern Powerhouse and its various spin-offs – the London Mayorality is rapidly being outflanked in terms of real regional power by more parochial politicians.
Little wonder, then, that interest in this race has been muted. But Londoners should pay attention as the campaign enters its final days – it is the capital city that will be most dramatically adversely affected should Brexit be the answer in June. And whoever is in City Hall over the following years of negotiation and diplomatic dancing would have a vital role to play in protecting Londoners’ interests. Who becomes Mayor of London may never have generated so little real interest; but it may also never have been so important.