Zac Goldsmith and Labour rival Sadiq Khan clashed from the word go at Tuesday's packed City A.M. debate, with the Tory candidate using his opening statement to dismiss the accusation that his campaign was divisive and Islamophobic.
The Richmond Park MP tackled head-on the allegations from Khan and Labour supporters that he had allowed his campaign to descend into a “racist scream”, telling the audience at the Institute of Directors he had “serious concerns” over Khan’s suitability for the role of London Mayor.
Goldsmith said "I have never referred to your religion. To suggest otherwise is wrong and offensive." However, he questioned Khan’s choice to share a platform with alleged supporters of Islamic extremism and attacked Khan’s role in producing a “step-by-step legal guide on how to sue the Metropolitan Police.”
“These are facts, not smears, and it is right that you are being scrutinised because you are standing to be mayor of London. You shout ‘Islamophobia’ to close those questions down, but this is nothing to do with Islam,” Goldsmith said.
Khan, a former human rights lawyer and chairman of civil rights advocacy group Liberty, hit straight back.
The Tooting MP, who is ahead of his Conservative rival in the opinion polls, said he was “disappointed by the tone of the campaign” being run by Goldsmith. “It’s been negative. It’s been divisive.”
Read more: The 12 candidates running to be London Mayor
On transport, one of the policy areas with the most clear water between the two sides, the candidates battled over how much Khan’s pledge to freeze transport fares across the capital would cost and whether Khan would raise council tax to pay for it.
“Sadiq [Khan] has given himself a blank cheque on council tax,” Goldsmith said, as he accused the former transport minister of “back of the fag packet stuff” over his claims that the freeze will cost £450m, not the £1.9bn cited by Goldsmith and Transport for London.
Khan said the only way he would raise council tax is if “Zac’s friend George [Osborne] cuts London’s budget” for policing. Outside of this, he had “no plans to raise council tax” and wanted to keep it “as low as possible”.
Read more: The quotes of the night
The two candidates also traded personal blows over their positions on Brexit. Khan said that he “would be the Labour mayor campaigning with the Prime Minister, chancellor, business secretary and home secretary to remain in the EU,” while the Conservative Zac Goldsmith will be voting to leave and putting London's economic future at risk.