Mayoral Debate: Candidates Show Some Conservatism, But Still Pander Left-Liberal Tokenism

BBC City Hal
BBC Radio London

In the debate between the four Conservative mayoral election hopefuls, clear dividing lines were drawn between the two members of Parliament, Syed Kamall MEP and Zac Goldsmith MP, and the two London-centric candidates, Andrew Boff, a Conservative London Assembly member, and Stephen Greenhalgh, Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime in London.

All four candidates appeared to have an instinctive understanding of conservatism, but Boff and Greenhalgh, with their hands-on experience in London affairs, were able to display a better understanding of the practicalities involved in running a world-class city like London.

Of the four candidates, only Zac Goldsmith is likely to be anything close to a household name. Born into a wealthy banking dynasty and married to a Rothschild, Zac spent his early adult life involved in environmental projects and as editor in chief of The Ecologist, owned and founded by his uncle Edward Goldsmith. He was elected as Member of Parliament for Richmond Park in 2010.

Despite his eco-credentials, Goldsmith has not strayed into ‘Tory wet’ territory, staying firmly to the centre right of his party. He is probably best known for his opposition to a third runway at Heathrow, promising to resign his Parliamentary seat on the western borders of London if it ever went ahead – a promise he reiterated in this morning’s debate.

But away from the Heathrow issue, many of his answers were vague. On the subject of the closure of Kids Company and charitable spending, he admitted “I’m not an expert”.

Syed Kamall gave probably the best answer to the Kids Company question, pointing out that there are thousands of small charities and community groups running excellent projects across London who see no need for the million pound subsidies that Kids Company enjoyed. He argued that large government grants are a corrupting factor for charities, distracting from the task of tackling whichever problem they’re set up to solve.

Kamall, who represents London at the European Parliament, is the candidate most likely to dispel the image of Conservatives as old rich white men. The son of a London bus driver (a fact he made much of in the debate), and a practising Muslim, he described himself as being able to “reach out way beyond traditional Conservative voters.”

Kamall’s political instincts are classical liberal: he cites Thatcher and Tebbit as his role models. Whereas Goldsmith wants to protect black cabs by tightening up regulations which would make it impossible for Uber to operate, Kamall wants to create a level playing field for all.

But in other areas he strayed into tokenism, such as suggesting, when the conversation turned to homeless people, that all four candidates sleep rough for a night to “raise awareness” of the issue. Andrew Boff retorted that the suggestion was “tokenistic”, and that what was required was practical help and funding.

Boff, on the other hand, along with Greenhalgh was much more precise in his responses. The two bickered over whether the Met had the capabilities to deal with hate crimes, with Boff saying that the police force was “lost” when confronted with a hate crime; Greenhalgh, whose day to day job deals with Policing in London, retorted “You shouldn’t talk down the Met like that”, to which Boff replied “I’m not, but they’re simply not organised on this at the moment.”

By contrast, Kamall had spoken of the need to bring communities together, preferably as children on the playground, whereas Goldsmith lambasted the BBC for giving “self-appointed spokesmen for Islam” too much airtime.

Andrew Boff has been with the Conservative Party since the 1970s when he was a Conservative Youth branch founder. But unsuccessful bids to enter both Westminster and the European Parliaments saw him opt for a career in information technology, and a political career in local politics, serving as Leader of Hillingdon Council in the early 1990s. He joined the London Assembly in 2008.

He is a libertarian: during the discussion on cabs he stated that there was no long term future for black cabs and that they would have to adapt by adopting a similar model to Uber; he also believes in building a new four runway airport in the Thames Estuary rather than a third runway at Heathrow, which he described as “the option of the unambitious”. He is also openly gay.

Stephen Greenhalgh, the son of a Czechoslovakian refugee and a surgeon, grew up in London and was educated at the exclusive St Paul’s school, before heading to Cambridge. He too has had a long career as a London councillor, alongside a business career, being appointed by Mayor Boris Johnson to head the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime, which replaced the Metropolitan Police Authority in 2012. As Deputy Mayor for Policing, he backed Boris Johnson’s calls to use water cannon to quell serious public disorder.

Greenhalgh gave some of the most comprehensive answers in the debate. On the subject of Kids Company, he revealed that Camila Batmanghelidjh had once handed him a vague one page submission requesting a million pounds, apparently a favourite tactic of hers. Unlike many other public figures, he refused the claim, demanding a properly thought out and costed proposal.

By and large the debate was congruent. All four candidates displayed a good grasp of the conservative principles of small state, competition and personal liberty; all four bought into popular left-liberal lines to some extent, whether it was Goldsmith parroting the line that Islamic extremists don’t represent Islam, or Greenhalgh’s suggestion that Uber shouldn’t be allowed to pay tax in another jurisdiction (a suggestion to which Boff pitched in “that would shut down the city of London, wouldn’t it Stephen”).

The clearest dividing line was drawn on the subject of tube workers strikes, with Boff and Greenhalgh insisting that they wouldn’t get involved in discussions with trade unions because that was the job of the London Transport Authority. Both were clear that the Mayor’s job was to set a strategic direction, not to get personally involved in micromanagement of situations. Kamall and Goldsmith on the other hand, more used to the tokenism of Parliamentary office and the need to be seen doing something, said that they would get personally involved.

The choice for Conservatives, then, is whether to pick a candidate with real world experience of how London works, for which Boff would probably be the better choice, or one with electoral appeal who can make his presence felt on an international stage, in which case Kamall edges ahead.

Follow Donna Rachel Edmunds on Twitter: or e-mail to: