Zac Goldsmith and Sadiq Khan: Gloves come off

Zac Goldsmith beats Sadiq Khan in first TV clash

Zac Goldsmith beats Sadiq Khan in first TV clash

Zac Goldsmith seemed oddly subdued in his first two election hustings against Sadiq Khan. At times the Conservative candidate looked like he didn't even want to be on stage. Even some of Goldsmith's own supporters had privately begun to express their frustration with their man's apparent unwillingness to land a glove on Khan.

For whatever reason, that changed last night as the two men took part in their first one-on-one TV clash.

The two men were fairly evenly matched during the first half of ITV's Late Debate programme, with neither side laying any significant blow on the other. However, in the second half Goldsmith appeared to suddenly wake up and showed for the first time why he has a real chance of winning in May.

Goldsmith concentrated his fire on Khan's pledge to freeze the price of TfL fares for four years. Polling has consistently shown that Londoners are unhappy with the extortionate cost of travel in London. But while the public clearly do want fares to come down, they do not necessarily trust Khan to do it without damaging the services they rely on.

And by repeatedly trying to paint Khan as slippery and evasive, the Tories hope to paint the the election as a choice between Goldsmith's 'plain-speaking' and Khan's untrustworthiness. The signs from last night's exchanges are that it could be effective.

Goldsmith repeatedly raised the recent intervention by Transport for London, in which they claimed that Khan's fares freeze would actually cost £1.9 billion, a much higher figure than that estimated by Khan.

Now it's perfectly possible for Khan to argue with TfL's figures. TfL are a body which is run by the Conservative mayor of London and whatever Goldsmith says about their intervention in the race being "unprecedented" in reality they have intervened in these contests before.

Most recently they even did so during the Conservative mayoral selection process, which Goldsmith himself was a part of.

But what Khan can't do is claim that their intervention didn't take place, and that's exactly what he tried to do last night.

Pushed by Goldsmith on TfL's claim that his fares freeze would cost £1.9 billion, Khan replied: "They don't say that. They don't say that. I've spoken to TfL on a regular basis. TfL don't say that."

This is simply untrue. TfL did say that. Khan can disagree with their opinion but he can't pretend it doesn't exist. As Goldsmith replied: "It doesn't matter how many times you say it's not there. It's there in black and white."

Goldsmith was also effective when challenging Khan's attacks on him for being "lazy" and a "serial underachiever". Khan claimed the election was a choice "between someone who has the experience and somebody who has been sloppy and lazy," to which Goldsmith replied that: "It's a choice between somebody who is willing to tell the truth and somebody who is misleading voters". On Khan's claim that Goldsmith had never had a proper job, he replied that: "It's very odd that Sadiq doesn't regard being an MP as a job. Maybe that's why he's turned a safe seat into a marginal."

At one point Khan seemed at a loss how to respond and began talking over the Conservative candidate, saying: "desperate stuff Zac. Urgh, ugh, urgh. Desperate stuff. Can I have some time to respond to your desperate stuff?"

There were no knock out blows, but for the first time we saw how Goldsmith can still win this race. As things stand Khan remains the favourite, but if the Tories can successfully portray Khan as untrustworthy and dishonest, while portraying their own man as principled and honest about the problems facing London, then there's still a chance they can edge this contest.