Is Zac Goldsmith’s heart in the race to be London mayor?
Does Zac Goldsmith really want to be mayor of London? The obvious answer to this is 'yes of course he does.' Nobody signs up to spend countless hours of their lives sitting in draughty town halls across London, while random members of the public heckle them, unless they actually want to do the job.
But if that's true then it hasn't really come across so far.
Last night the Conservative candidate took part in the Evening Standard mayoral hustings in South Kensington. As was the case at last week's hustings, he didn't disgrace himself. Softly spoken and well turned-out, he appeared intelligent, calm and reasonable at all times. He committed no major gaffes and most of those people already inclined to support him will have come away still in his camp.
But there was no passion on display either. No sense that he is fighting for the biggest job of his life. No sense that he has a burning drive to change London for the better. No sense that he would do or say anything to persuade Londoners to lend him their vote. In 2013, Goldsmith ruled out ever standing for mayor and subsequently took years of persuading by party colleagues in order to eventually agree to run. His performance last night suggests he's still not entirely convinced he made the right choice.
The contrast with his predecessor Boris Johnson could not have been greater. When Boris took part in these hustings in 2012 and 2008, he had a hunger that was obvious in every answer he gave. Not a question was allowed to pass without Boris dissecting it for opportunities to advance his cause, or attack his opponent. Boris used every weapon in his arsenal – from humour to outright abuse – in order to get one over on his opponent. It wasn't always pretty. Boris and Ken famously almost came to blows in a lift after one particularly tense hustings in 2012. But it was effective. Boris looked and sounded like a man who was determined to win no matter what. In both contests the final result was close, but he won in large part because he looked like the future while a rather tired-looking Ken Livingstone looked like the past.
Goldsmith and Khan sit beside Evening Standard editor Sarah Sands
Goldsmith's main rival in this race is Labour's Sadiq Khan. Khan has often been characterised both by Goldsmith and others as a 'machine politician' who will change his position on any issue if he thinks it will help him. There is certainly an element of truth to this. But far from being a hindrance, this is actually an asset to Khan's campaign. Like Boris before him, Khan realises that he needs to do whatever it takes to win. And if that means nominating Jeremy Corbyn for the party leadership, only to then stab him in the back the second he's won the mayoral nomination, then so be it. If that means taking donations from trade unions, only to then desert them the second they go on strike, then that's the price he's willing to pay. Politicians are often rightly criticised for being opportunists, but if you don't take your opportunities in politics, then somebody else certainly will. Again, it's not always pretty, but so far it seems to be effective.
Khan is never going to be a star media performer. But unlike Goldsmith he is obviously working hard to get better. At both of these hustings he appeared relaxed and confident and was the only candidate apart from George Galloway to crack any jokes. He was also the first candidate to stand up from his seat in order to deliver his opening speech. To some this may seem like a cheesy gimmick, but cheesy gimmicks can sometimes be effective. And again, it was another sign that he is willing to try anything to get even a slight advantage over his opponents.
Sadiq Khan stands up to deliver his opening speech
Interestingly, almost all of the attacks on Khan last night came not from Goldsmith, but from Galloway. Galloway devoted pretty much every answer to criticising the Labour candidate. Galloway is the master of the political put-down and his comments drew laughter and even applause from the audience. But Khan wisely rose above it. As George Bernard Shaw once famously said: "I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig, you get dirty; and besides, the pig likes it."
Galloway may have little chance of success in this election, but he at least understands who he has to beat and how he would like to beat him. Goldsmith by contrast does not appear comfortable either on the attack or the defence. Worryingly for a candidate for one of the most high-profile positions in politics, he at times doesn't even look like he wants to be on the stage.
Only a fool would rule out Goldsmith's chances. He has a highly professional team behind him with a proven track record of winning elections. There are also months of campaigning to go in which either candidate could do or say something which sinks themselves or their opponents.
But if you want to persuade people to elect you, the first step is to convince them that you actually want the job. So far Goldsmith is failing to even do that.