Battle between Zac Goldsmith and Sadiq Khan has an ugly subtext

Zac Goldsmith

Another day, another Old Etonian.

Did we imagine it would still be like this at the top of politics when the country was being led by clever grammar school boys and girls a generation ago? But cheer up. The bookies’ odds and the polling data suggest this particular Etonian is set for a hiding when Londoners vote for a new mayor on 5 May. Are they right? There’s an ugly subtext to this campaign.

Don’t stop reading because you’re fed up with reading about London. I’m fed up with it too and haven’t previously written about this contest, the biggest directly elected mandate in Britain, even though it’s just three weeks away. Like it or not, London is the main engine of UK economic growth until someone comes up with a better idea. Inevitably, the result is also important to Jeremy Corbyn’s standing.

I think it’s fair to say that neither Labour’s candidate, Sadiq Khan , nor the Tories’ Zac Goldsmith , also a London MP, inspires as much partisan passion as Tulse Hill comprehensive’s Ken Livingstone or Eton college’s Boris Johnson, the man who defeated Ken in 2008 and 2016. Dave Hill gallantly interviews the Liberal Democrat runner, Caroline Pidgeon here, but she’s an also-ran.

Frontrunner Khan is a small, pugnacious criminal lawyer whose parents moved to Tooting from Pakistan. Goldsmith is a clear foot taller and blond, the son of Thatcherite billionaire and Europe-bashing environmentalist Sir Jimmy, who funded the Referendum party, precursor of Ukip. In less enlightened times we might have called Zac arm candy.

On Tuesday night the pair squared off at the Institute of Directors grand HQ in Pall Mall, opposite the even grander Athaeneum Club , courtesy of City AM, the equally freemarket free sheet. Goldsmith country, as was apparent once or twice.

Anyone following the contest with even half an ear will know that the shortage and cost of affordable housing in the capital has emerged as the No 1 issue for almost everyone except Simon Jenkins, a sophisticated commentator on London matters for nearly 50 years. In last night’s London Evening Standard, a usually reliably Tory partisan, Jenkins declared: “There is no housing crisis, just housing madness.” He is not afraid to stand alone and recently caned Johnson’s record in office.

Both candidates have ideas, some of them rather similar, to build more homes – 50,000 a year in Goldsmith’s case – mostly by persuading public bodies such as Transport for London (TfL) to disgorge some of the vast amount of brownfield land they own but do not use. Khan wants to freeze the city’s transport fares (the highest in Europe), which Goldsmith calls fantasy economics because it would punch a £1.9bn hole in TfL’s investment budget.

They squabble over detail and which of them is more business friendly. Khan is full of energy. Goldsmith says he has cajoled ministers and the City into all sorts of deals, he’s a cross-party deal maker who contrasts his record as a backbench MP (he’s a bit short of real jobs on his CV) with Khan’s “tribalist” approach.

So far, so familiar, you might say, bickering politicians with some good ideas and some unconvincing ones. How much would each be able to deliver in tough times, a listening voter might ask? Like other devolved authorities – Wales, Scotland, Manchester – London has been promised new powers, over further education and control of the business rate among them.

On Tuesday night both kept calling London “the greatest city in the world” and the most important. That’s not quite true, but it’s currently doing very well, due to grow from 8.6 million inhabitants to 10 million by 2030, with much of the expansion east of Tower Bridge. Small by Asian standards, large by Europe’s.

Both candidates say London is at a dangerous crossroads and could falter if we vote to leave the EU on 23 June. Goldsmith, who turned his Richmond Park seat from marginal to ultra-safe in the 2015 election (a personal vote for someone who sticks to his promises, he claims), is Eurosceptic in a cosmopolitan capital. So he says the mayoral election is not about Europe. Sensible, but uninspiring.

We’ll come to the ugly subtext in a minute. How do the candidates strike me? Both were better than I expected when I watched them perform before Christmas, though neither too stylish or lively. Khan had a good joke. He’s been proud of his backstory, the son of a Pakistani bus driver, he told us. Then along came Sajid Javid. “Typical. You wait for ages for a Pakistani bus driver’s son to come along. Then two come along at once.”

Ho, ho. But wit isn’t Goldsmith’s conspicuous style, he’s earnest and wholesome, a lifelong green. He’s also a bit diffident. Does he really want the job? The Guardian’s London watcher, Dave Hill, isn’t sure. The Spectator’s Isabel Hardman, reports despair in the Tory camp.

Here’s where we get to the tricky bit. When Khan and Goldsmith gave speeches to the Westminster press gallery in December I asked each of them: “This contest pits a Muslim against a Jew, an opportunity for this cosmopolitan city or a polarising risk?” Both replied that it is to London’s credit, though I seem to recall Goldsmith saying he’s only partly Jewish, on dad’s side. Dave Hill has picked that up too. Khan has been assiduous to anxious Jews.

But Evening Standard readers and those of other Tory papers have been reminded week after week that Khan has had some questionable connections with Islamic firebrands in his past, as well as nominating Corbyn for Labour leader (he was one of those who did it to broaden the contest and has since distanced himself from his leader).

Goldsmith insisted on Tuesday night that he’d never mentioned his opponent’s faith, but as we all know he doesn’t have to do so personally. In the present climate of fear of terrorist attack, his aides talk of “Islamist extremists” is enough. After all, his campaign is being run by Lynton Crosby, the Australian master of simple themes to bulldoze an election. Some are OK – it’s the economy – others are dog-whistle issues, not audible to the human ear, but effective. Terrorism is one such.

So I was surprised on Tuesday night when Goldsmith’s opening five-minute statement devoted the first half to repudiating, as angrily as this mild man can manage, accusations by the Khan camp that he is engaged in “Islamophobia”. All he is doing is asking reasonable questions about Khan’s judgment in associating with some dubious characters in the past, writing dubious letters, one to the Guardian after 7/7, and a step-by-step guide on how to sue the police.

Khan dealt with this as he must have done many times in many suburbs. He’s the one who has drawn radical protests at the mosque, been called an apostate, awarded a fatwah for backing same-sex marriage. He’s the one with people of every faith in his campaign (“even people from Yorkshire”). At the start of the campaign Goldsmith had been fizzing with ideas (“he’s a good man”) but he’d been lured into negativity by Crosby and desperation.

Towards the end of the session they came back to the issue when a Financial Times reporter asked Goldsmith why Khan’s support for Babar Ahmad , , who was extradited to the US for providing material support to the Taliban, made him unfit for office? Goldsmith rattled off the case against Ahmad. Khan said both Goldsmith and Boris Johnson had supported Ahmad’s fight against extradition. That’s different, countered Goldsmith. Check the record, said Khan.

In the present state of high alert over Brussels/Paris attacks, it’s easy to see how this election could get nasty as polling day looms, doing London’s citizens no good at all.

• This article was amended on 13 April 2016. An earlier version said incorrectly that Babar Ahmad had been jailed in Guantánamo Bay.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Michael White, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 13th April 2016 11.14 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010