London minister blocked, lawsuit threatened and an unknown barrister – inside the Conservatives’ city psychodrama

The Conservatives have announced the shortlist of three candidates who hope to be selected as the party’s London mayoral contender — and they are not who people expected. 

Drawn up after a series of interviews by a selectorate panel of 17 people at Conservative headquarters, those battling to secure the right to challenge Sadiq Khan are the recently-ousted leader of the Conservative Group in City Hall, Susan Hall; Downing Street aide-turned-tech entrepreneur, Daniel Korski; and Mozammel Hossain, an unknown criminal defence barrister. 

The key upset is that Paul Scully, the minister for London and the MP for Sutton and Cheam, was left off the shortlist. The minister was the only candidate who might have claimed any name recognition advantage, having frequently been put out to bat for the government on broadcasts. Consequently, Scully was roundly viewed as the frontrunner in the race’s early stages. 

Scully’s exclusion quickly prompted speculation that CCHQ insiders had gone out of their way to block a candidate who is a known Boris Johnson ally. When Scully announced his candidacy last month, he pointedly suggested that he would be channeling the spirit of former mayor Johnson, who served as City Hall chief from 2008 to 2016. “The point about Boris was that he was ambitious for London, he was positive for London … He reached out beyond any sense of core vote or tribalism. That is what I want to do”, Scully told the PA news agency upon announcing his campaign. 

Perhaps tellingly, Samuel Kasumu, another pro-Johnson candidate, also failed to make the cut. Kasumu was once a race adviser in the former prime minister’s No 10 team and had received endorsements from Priti Patel, Nadine Dorries and Nadhim Zahawi in the early stages of the campaign. Echoing the former PM’s critique of Rishi Sunak in his resignation broadside, Kasumu recently described his party as being “in danger of turning our back on Thatcher’s legacy” in an article for ConservativeHome. 

In the end, Kasumu, a councillor in Welwyn Hatfield in Hertfordshire, failed to make the long list of eight potential candidates.

Following his exclusion, Kasumu issued a statement on Twitter in which he claimed “certain individuals” had been seeking to block him from making the shortlist. Cryptically, the excised hopeful name-dropped Scully. “Unfortunately, Paul Scully and senior figures in his team, and others, have been flagged as being involved”, Kasumu claimed. 

Now Kasumu and Scully are tipped to take their spat to the courts. Both Politico and the Express report a legal twist is afoot, with the failed hopefuls clashing over Kasumu’s accusation in private. “Scully has urged the former Downing Street advisor to remove the statement, but Kasumu has so far refused”, Politico purports. Scully’s “lawyers are already involved in an accusation they believe is defamatory”, the Express explains.

Stepping back, and the fact that London minister Scully did not make the shortlist to be the city’s mayor may speak volumes about how CCHQ views its government’s record going down in London. As Labour’s shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting has tweeted: “There’s a very simple explanation for the Conservative Party not shortlisting their Minister for London to be their London Mayoral candidate: their Government is toxic”.

The candidates

But the shortlisting process for the Conservative mayoral candidate has raised eyebrows for other reasons — particularly in response to the shock inclusion of the total unknown Mozammel Hossain.

Hossain is a top defence barrister but has no political experience. As stated above, the inclusion of Hossain, at the expense of Scully — the London minister of three years — naturally begs the question of what the CCHQ selectorate was looking for in a candidate.

To be fair, Hossain, who undertook zero campaigning in the lead-up to the shortlisting process, has since broken his silence. He has told the Sun newspaper that he didn’t own a pair of his own shoes until he was 16 years old. The Bangladesh-born mayoral hopeful also vowed to the paper that, as London mayor, he will crack down on drill music knife crime, ditch the ULEZ extension and build on TfL land. 

“We’re the most magical place in the galaxy”, the man dubbed Mysterious Moz maintained. 

Hossain is reportedly set to launch his campaign in the coming days, where he will boast the support of former Conservative party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith. (He has also now set up a Twitter account, which as of writing has 157 followers). 

Daniel Korski, another of the shortlisted few, has likewise made a virtue of his non-political background — that is despite serving as an aide to David Cameron, working as deputy head of the No 10 Policy Unit from 2013 to 2016. He told last month: “I think I’m totally different, I come from the outside of politics, I build businesses and community organisations, and … I want to bring all that energy and technical know-how into politics”.

Leaving frontline politics in 2016, when Cameron resigned following Remain’s defeat in the 2016 EU referendum (a campaign Korski backed), the mayoral hopeful has since served on a panel advising former trade secretary Liz Truss and worked on Tom Tugendhat’s campaign during the first Conservative leadership contest of 2022. 

He has also received the backing of Michael Gove, the levelling up secretary, and leader of the House of Commons Penny Mordaunt.

Korski and Hossain face off against Susan Hall, the former leader of the Conservative Group in the London Assembly. Hall, who says Sadiq Khan “fears her most”, was reported to have been moved on by her colleagues in the London Assembly. After being recently replaced as the most senior Conservative in City Hall by Neil Garratt, one source told the Evening Standard that Hall has been “stabbed in the back”. 

Hall is backed by London Conservative MPs Mike Freer and Bob Blackman and as a longstanding London politician and the sole elected politician in the field, she may have the greatest visibility among party members in the capital.

There is also an ideological tilt to the race. Hall is a pro-Brexit, self-described anti-“woke” politician. She remained a staunch defender of Boris Johnson throughout the “partygate” and even compared January 6th Capitol-rioters in the US to pro-EU, Remain supporters. Hall tweeted at the time of the pro-Trump Capitol insurrection: “flabbergasted at the amount of remainers screaming on Twitter that Trump voters should respect democracy – err, hellooo – pot – kettle spring to mind!”.

Hossain is yet to set out a detailed political stall, but Korski — a Cameron-era remainer who backed Tom Tugendhat for party leader last summer — appears an unashamed moderate. (Although the mayoral hopeful has notably insisted his “not a Remoaner”).

What next?

In the end, despite Scully and Kasumu’s reported legal wrangling, it is one of Korski, Hall and Hossain who will be facing off to take on Sadiq Khan in the London mayoral election scheduled for 2 May 2024.

As the most experienced of the candidates it is arguably Hall’s race to lose. But she will be vying for votes in an electorate more liberal than the Conservative membership in the country at large — a fact which may well help Korski’s cause. Then there’s the surprise candidate Hossain, who will undoubtedly tout his public advocacy and unlikely life path through the campaign. But the barrister will have to learn politics fast — the race’s first hustings will be held on Friday.