Shaun Bailey versus Sadiq Khan is a missed opportunity for the Conservatives to show they’re serious about winning back London

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LONDON — On paper, the Conservatives’ decision to select Shaun Bailey as their candidate to run against the current London Mayor Sadiq Khan looks sensible.

Bailey is a former youth worker turned government adviser and London Assembly member who has what political commentators like to call an appealing “backstory,” which roughly translates as him being a working-class lad done good. The fact that he is also black should again at least on paper, and help to undo some of the damage done by the Conservative’s last London mayoral campaign in which their then-candidate Zac Goldsmith was accused of running a “dog-whistle” racist campaign against Labour’s Sadiq Khan.

Bailey also has the early and explicit backing of London’s only dedicated newspaper, the Evening Standard, which is coincidentally currently edited by Bailey’s former colleague and former Conservative Chancellor, George Osborne.

Those around the London mayor are certainly not complacent about the challenge from Bailey and his main press backer, and they believe the election will be a tough fight in a city which has seen a spike in violent crime over the past year.

However, it is fair to say that Khan’s supporters are not exactly quaking in their boots at the news of Bailey’s victory either. For all his appealing “backstory,” Bailey is almost completely unknown among the vast majority of Londoners. And for those that do know him, it is not always a particularly impressive picture.

His performances on the London Assembly — where he regularly goes toe-to-toe with Khan — are far from impressive. Whereas his opponent for the Conservative nomination, Andrew Boff, has a long experience of taking on both Labour and Conservative mayors in the years he has been on the Assembly, Bailey sometimes comes across as ill-experienced and at times stuttering, and has yet to land a significant blow on Khan.

More importantly, the Labour operation has already landed a successful pre-emptive strike on Bailey, revealing that he previously retweeted an Islamophobic image on Twitter. Bailey claims ignorance of the full nature of the image but the damage has surely already been done. The fact that neither Bailey nor the Conservatives failed to spot this in advance suggests their campaign operation leaves a lot to be desired.

Khan remains popular with Londoners, but his popularity has dipped over the past year according to recent polling. It is therefore possible to see how a high-profile and experienced candidate could have mounted a serious challenge to Khan, even if the odds of victory in a city which now overwhelmingly votes for Labour appear slim. However, with all the potential “big names” for the job ruling themselves out at an early stage, the party has left itself with a candidate who performs far better on paper than he has done on the political stage.

For the Conservatives, the route back to winning a majority at the next election must go through London. A successful mayoral campaign could have been a significant step on that journey. The evidence so far is that Bailey is unlikely to help them very far along that road.

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