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A Conservative ‘mayor-in-waiting’ could raise the temperature of London politics

The Conservatives’ reported decision to launch their candidate selection process nearly two years before the next Mayoral election will raise the temperature of mayoral politics, but it could be a high risk too.

One of the oddities of mayoral administrations, in the context of British politics, is their absence of an opposition in the parliamentary or traditional local government sense. The Mayor of London is scrutinised and challenged by the London Assembly; they approve his policies and his budget; but none of the Assembly’s 25 members is an opposition ‘mayor-in-waiting’ – even if some may seek their party’s nomination as candidates.

Appointing their candidate this year should enable the Conservatives to build a head of steam in opposition, as Sadiq Khan faces some of his toughest tests – delivering against commitments to build 65,000 homes a year, tackling the funding crisis in Transport for London, addressing public concern over the recent spate of knife crime.

But early selection doesn’t guarantee success.

When Boris Johnson defeated the incumbent Ken Livingstone in 2008, he had only been selected (after endless huffing and puffing) the previous September. Ken was reselected in 2010 for the 2012 election, but Boris won again.  In 2016, the selection processes were delayed until the 2015 General Election, giving two brand new candidates a relatively short run in.

The critical gamble seems to be whether the Conservatives will be able to find a candidate who has the charisma, stamina and tolerance for risk to spend two years battling against an incumbent.

It’s a punishing prospect – like running for President, without access to the nuclear button at the end of it.

Justine Greening has been tipped as a favourite, especially since her fellow-MP Ed Vaizey gave her his backing. Other potential names include Assembly member Shaun Bailey, MP and former Assembly member James Cleverly, former Boris advisor Munira Mirza, and MEP Syed Kamall. Even George Osborne’s name has been mentioned, though whether he could add another job to his portfolio may be debatable.

The list is as diverse as London might expect, but few of the potential candidates are household names. 21 months is a very long time in politics; it could give space to build a profile, assemble a team, and develop a relationship with the Londoners who will cast their ballots on 7 May 2020.

Whether familiarity breeds boredom or seals the deal will be the gamble facing candidates and their party alike.

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Richard Brown is Research Director at Centre for London. Follow him on Twitter.