Current Affairs

The frontrunners in the race for City Hall

The two leading candidates in London’s mayoral elections, Zach Goldsmith and Sadiq Khan, want to address the issues, but all they seem to be able to do is talk about each other

Zach Goldsmith | Conservative

In the shadow of a monstrous nine-storey council block barely a mile from the All-England tennis club, Boris Johnson is introduced to more than 100 Conservatives as a “London legend, blond bombshell”. The mayor warns of a “spectre stalking London” in the form of Sadiq Khan: the Labour candidate who is favourite to succeed him on May 5.

This is the manifesto launch for the Conservative candidate: the polite, handsome, and extraordinarily wealthy Zac Goldsmith.

Johnson describes his fellow Old Etonian as “one of the most interesting politicians of his generation”, a former editor of The Ecologist who has fought against the expansion of Heathrow airport for his Richmond Park constituents. He was rewarded with the biggest increase in majority of any sitting MP at last year’s general election.

I was told on day one, when I was selected, by a senior Labour figure that this campaign would get very, very messy very, very quickly

The audience giggles adoringly when Goldmsith plays down his origins as the son of a grocer. “It’s technically true,” he says of billionaire financier Sir James Goldsmith, who bought companies that owned high street products in the early 1970s. “My father sold a lot of Marmite and Bovril.”

Goldsmith junior has visibly relaxed during what he describes as “the marathon” of the London mayoral campaign. In December, he gave a stilted address to political hacks at the House of Commons, while Khan admitted he might have mentioned that he is the son of a bus driver more than once or twice.

Now closing in on polling day, Goldmsith calmly swats away a journalist asking if he is a racist. “It is an absurd thing to say.”

The race is one of the bitterest ever seen on British shores. Goldsmith has been accused of Islamophobia for pointing out that Khan, a practicing Muslim, spoke at events that included extremists when he was a human rights lawyer.

Goldsmith is irritated that his opponent has responded by calling it “horribly desperate stuff”. Talking to Raconteur, Goldsmith blames Khan’s campaign methods: “I was told on day one, when I was selected, by a senior Labour figure that this campaign would get very, very messy very, very quickly.

“I don’t think it is right for people to try and close down questions by throwing around terms like Islamophobia. I think that is irresponsible, I think it’s wrong.”

He also attacks Khan for nominating the successful left-wing candidate, Jeremy Corbyn, for Labour leader last year year. “He [Khan] is very much part of that very anti-business Labour package.”

Yet Goldsmith insists he’s run a positive campaign and perks up when discussing how he’d clean-up the capital. “London is busy, London will always be busy, but there are things we can do… we know that there are lots of haulage firms who are demonstrating that you can massively reduce the number of trucks on the road by using rail, by using river, by using consolidation centres.

“I can guarantee at the very, very least, and it really is at the very least, that every bus in Greater London will either be zero emission or ultra-low emissions compliant by the end of the term. I think we can do much more than that, but I don’t want to over-promise and under-deliver.”

As for Khan, he claims to have been on friendly terms with Goldsmith prior to the election, even having his mobile number. Asked if he has Khan’s number, Goldsmith laughs: “I don’t think I do, but I don’t think he’s got mine either, to be honest. I’ve never had a text or a call. I’m very happy to receive one.”

Sadiq Khan | Labour

Tessa Jowell didn’t see Sadiq Khan coming. The former Olympic minister, thought to be nailed-on to win Labour’s nomination for London mayoral candidate, was heavily beaten by Khan in September, who took 58.9 per cent of the vote.

The Conservatives didn’t see him coming either. He has run Labour’s London electoral campaigns for years, and the capital proved to be one of the party’s rare successes at the general election, taking 45 of its 73 Parliamentary seats.

And the bookies didn’t see the Tooting MP coming. Only two-and-a-half years ago the then-shadow Lord Chancellor was 33-1 to be the next London mayor; as the campaign enters its final days Khan is odds-on favourite.

At 45, Khan is four years older than Goldsmith, and constantly references his superior political experience. He says that as a communities and then-transport minister during Gordon Brown’s premiership he helped put together the complex funding for Crossrail, the £14.5 billion east-to-west London line that is due to open in 2018.

However, he puts his honed craft to its best by blaming — without outright damning — his opponent for the way race has ended up dominating this contest.

One of the advantages London will have with me as the mayor is I’m not after George Osborne’s job or David Cameron’s job

“I’ve always said the election should be one based on a vision for London and where the candidates are competing with each other based upon the ideas. I’ve had a campaign fizzing with ideas about how we meet the challenges of our city and also fulfil the aspirations of Londoners.

“It’s up to Zac Goldsmith to decide upon the campaign he decides to have… What I do know is it’s been incredibly negative, but that’s a choice he’s made. I will carry on being relentlessly positive, sharing with Londoners my plans with how we’re going to fix the housing crisis, have a modern and affordable transport system, make our city healthier and safer, support businesses that are trying to expand, and then, as the Mayor of London, campaign for six weeks after the election for us to remain in the European Union.”

Naturally confident, Khan has had his eye on City Hall for some time, but says he has no ambition of using it as a launch pad for 10 Downing Street.

By contrast, Boris Johnson has made no secret of his eyes are set. There are some concerns that Johnson’s determination for the top job might have caused a delay in Treasury funding to develop plans for Crossrail 2.

It was thought this money would be handed to Transport for London last year, but £80 million was not made available until March. There have been suggestions that George Osborne did not want to dent his own leadership hopes by boosting a rail line associated with Johnson, his potential rival.

“One of the advantages London will have with me as the mayor is I’m not after George Osborne’s job or David Cameron’s job, so there will be no silly business in relation to deals with the Government,” says Khan.

The father-of-two adds that he has little choice but to work with the government, because he will need the Conservatives’ help, given the centralised nature of London’s budget. Khan points out that the London mayor can only spend only about 7 per cent of the revenue raised in the city, against 50 per cent in New York and 70 per cent in Tokyo.

If he does win, though, Khan will need to find a way to quickly mend relations with the Conservatives given the bruising nature of this campaign.

Photo: Chris Ratcliffe/Getty Images