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‘Narrow and negative’: how Susan Hall’s London mayor bid could be a harbinger for Tories’ future



‘Narrow and negative’: how Susan Hall’s London mayor bid could be a harbinger for Tories’ future

Paul Icely puffs out his cheeks – and then slowly exhales. He is visibly deflating. “I thought there might be a few more of us,” the 67-year-old black-cab driver admits, his eyes darting between the students milling outside Barking and Dagenham college. “You seen anyone else?” Icely asks Lisa Prager, 40, as she limps towards him with the aid of an NHS issue crutch.

Prager, who harbours a grudge against a Labour council over the loss of her job at a local park, appears to be the only other supporter of Susan Hall, the Conservative candidate for mayor of London, to have turned up on this sunny mid morning in Dagenham, east London.

Perhaps of more pressing concern is the fact that the candidate herself should have been canvassing here an hour ago. “I thought they would let me know if the plan had changed,” says Prager, scrolling through messages on WhatsApp.

The Conservative campaign to get Hall elected as London mayor on Thursday and put an end to Sadiq Khan’s bid for a historic third term could not be described as sure footed.

Hall’s candidature was born out of scandal when the favourite, Daniel Korski, a former Downing Street adviser, pulled out over allegations of sexual misconduct, and it is a rare week that Hall’s past tweets or tendency to “shoot from the hip”, as one ally generously described it, has not been exploited by the Khan camp to highlight her “Trumpian” approach to the climate emergency and potentially controversial views.

She has called for the government to delay its commitment to be carbon net zero by 2050 and there was much consternation when comments emerged in which Hall, 69, claimed that there was a “problem with crime” in the black community, something her allies say was born out of concern for people of colour. But she had also replied to a social media post in 2019 from former Daily Mail columnist Katie Hopkins describing Khan as “our nipple-height mayor of Londonistan” with the words “thank you Katie” and was forced to apologise for liking a tweet in 2020 that had a picture of Enoch Powell captioned “it’s never too late to get London back”.

Hall, a London assembly member, has explained this away as a tendency a few years back to spend “too much time on Twitter”, but then there are the more recent campaign gaffes.

Criticising Khan’s record on crime, Hall had claimed to be a victim of pickpocketing on the underground. It later emerged her purse had been found lodged between seats on the Jubilee line with her £40 still in it.

When asked how much people pay to get on a bus in London, Hall admitted to not having a clue. “I don’t use them,” she told LBC presenter Nick Ferrari, just days after criticising Khan’s decision to spend £123m on freezing Transport for London (TfL) fares until March 2025. “I use trains all the time,” she insisted.

It would be easy then to write off the Hall campaign as having been doomed to failure from the start: a poor choice of candidate in a traditionally Labour-backing city that was always unlikely to buck the national trend after 14 years of Conservative government.

The latest YouGov poll puts Khan 22 points ahead of Hall, with the Labour mayor on 47% to Hall’s 25%. The Green candidate, Zoe Garbett, is on 7% while Liberal Democrat Rob Blackie is tied on 6% with Reform UK’s Howard Cox. But insiders who know Hall suggest that there is something more concerning for those who would like to see future Conservative victories in the capital and more broadly.

Hall, a former leader of Harrow council, had a history of reaching across the political divide to get stuff done. She acted against landlords who were cramming tenants into sub-divided properties, something she described as “beds in sheds”, and she is known for offering a kind word to those of a different political persuasion at times of personal difficulty.

“Susan Hall is a decent person who will employ good quality people and desperately wants a better London,” said Steven Norris, the two-time Tory candidate for mayor during Ken Livingstone’s time in office. But her campaign has been notably narrow, said one former political ally. “She ran a minority administration in Harrow and had to do deals and it would have been better for her to show now that she can work across political divides,” the source said.

“Instead, everything she has done has been negative rather than positive. When she was asked about her youth going to raves, she actually looked happy and smiled but for the rest of the campaign it looked like she had swallowed a wasp.”

It is suggested that Hall, a loyal foot soldier of the Tory party, is acting in line with its general trend since 2016 – and could prove to be a harbinger of its post-general election shape. “The Conservatives appear to be going down a post-Brexit right-wing rabbit hole”, the source added. Hall’s campaign has been all about cars and crime.

Dr Elizabeth Simon, a researcher in British politics at the Mile End Institute, said polling between 8 and 17 April indicated that Hall’s central policy offers had been popular.

“One of Hall’s key pledges is to abolish the 20mph speed limit for London’s main roads, while maintaining this for residential areas and around schools,” said Simon. “We find that 55% of Londoners support this and just under a quarter oppose this, giving the policy a net approval rating of approximately 30 points.”

Hall has also claimed that Khan wishes to charge motorists for every mile they drive, something the mayor denies. But the most high profile of Hall’s pledges has been to abolish the Ulez expansion to outer London, under which polluting vehicle owners pay a £12.50 daily charge.

According to the Mile End Institute/Savanta polling, 63% of Londoners either think Ulez should be scrapped entirely (32%) or should return to its former inner London boundaries (31%), compared with 26% who think that it should continue to cover the entirety of the city.

But Simon warned that Ulez did not appear to be the broad vote winner that Hall might hope.

“Perhaps disappointingly, given the focus of her campaign on the Ulez issue, she is not significantly out-performing her average vote share among people who have cars in their household. Thirty-seven percent of Londoners in households with cars say they will vote Hall versus 33% of all Londoners,” she said. “The other issue is that most voters will not have the issue of Ulez at the forefront of their minds when deciding who to vote for.”

Ulez ranks as the fifth most important issue for Londoners, with 9% saying it would determine their choice, the polling suggests, leading to the conclusion that a broader campaign could garner more support.

Andrew Boff, the Tory chair of the London assembly, disagrees.

“There are obviously other issues but nothing grabs the public imagination like Ulez and crime,” he said. “These are the big ones. I am a housing geek myself and I would love to hear her go on more about building family sized homes which she did but it wasn’t the centre of the campaign, quite rightly.”

Boff said he had only “granular” criticisms of Hall’s strategy.

“Khan and Susan have been playing this game whereby, if he’s not going to turn up [to public meetings], she’s not going to turn up,” he said. “And I think she should have just turned up. She turned up an awful lot but I did a few for her. I do think some of those meetings would have benefited from Susan being there.”

“Susan gets things done,” Boff added. “She does shoot from the hip. And sometimes she gets a few burns off that but what you know with Susan is that if she says she’s going to do something she will do it.”

As to Hall’s past support for Liz Truss’s leadership, Boff said there were plenty of people in the Tory party who regretted that. “I’ve had great fun going around saying all to my colleagues, ‘We did tell you’. That’s all in the past. Truss fooled a lot of people.”

Norris believes the incumbent’s unpopularity over Ulez offers Hall a fighting chance. “This is more likely to be a ‘How much do you dislike Sadiq Khan’ election than ‘are you considering Susan Hall’s offering against Sadiq’s’,” he said. “Am I going to put my house on [her] winning? No, probably not. Because you can’t ever ignore what is going on in the national picture, but I think she’s going to do awful lot better than many people think and she might just give Sadiq the shock of his life.”

Back in Dagenham, Icely, a regular at the anti-Ulez protests, is returning to his car when he stumbles into the Hall campaign bus, a red double decker emblazoned with the union flag. The location of that morning’s canvassing had been changed at the last minute and the message had not got through. There is a skip back in Icley’s step, as he laments that coverage of his stance is usually limited to GB News.

Hall’s press officer is less enthused. “Susan will not be doing interviews,” he says of the candidate who is halfway up the road knocking doors. Then Hall turns up, with a handful of other door knockers in tow.

“Very supportive,” she says of that morning’s doorsteps. “My message is that we need to stop Ulez expansion, make sure there is no ‘pay for miles’ and we need to build more homes.”

Was it a mistake not to turn up at all the hustings? “Well, let’s wait and see on Thursday.”

Will she win? “Let’s wait and see.”

“I have had a year [of this] so I’m a little bit exhausted but you know it is going to be exciting,” Hall adds. “While this has been busy, when I am mayor of London there is so much that has to change. I will be flat out doing that. That is what I do. If you take a job on, you work like there is no tomorrow to make sure things improve and I will.”

As Hall’s bus drives away, Biju Joseph, 49, an NHS worker who has been canvassing for her that morning, hangs around to chat. It had been a difficult morning, he concedes. Joseph, who came to the UK from India in 2010, backs Hall because he believes that too many migrants to the UK are on benefits. But he is not sure if the Tory message – or the messenger – is resonating. “Whether you like Khan or don’t like him, you can’t ignore him,” Joseph admits. “Many don’t really know her, actually.”

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