Don’t groan. Don’t roll your eyes. We may be two years away from the next mayoral election but the runners and riders for 2020 are already being lined up. And so they should. After 2016’s excruciating campaign pittingZac Goldsmith against Sadiq Khan, the Conservatives need a better plan – and a better candidate.
One name that comes up time and again is Putney MP and former Cabinet minister Justine Greening, who has already received the backing of a number of colleagues including would-be rival Ed Vaizey, who last week dropped out to back her.
Greening has so far refused to be drawn on whether she plans to throw her hat in the ring, but has given City A.M. the clearest indication yet that she is planning to.
“People want to see a mayor who will roll up their sleeves, get on with the job, but also have a vision of what 21st century London is about – which for me is about social mobility and connecting young people with the undoubted opportunity that our city provides,” she says.
Although Greening insists she is focused on the job in hand – currently fighting the government over its Heathrow expansion plans – the door appears to be very much open to 2020, arguing the Goldsmith campaign was too negative without dealing with the specific weaknesses of Khan as a political leader.
“It’s one thing to say why you think the alternative candidate wouldn’t be very good – let’s face it, Sadiq Khan has ditched almost every single promise he’s made, and the ones he hasn’t ditched, he’s not delivering on,” she says. “He should be held to account for that, but in the end the people want to know what our alternative is: how London will be different if you vote Conservative.”
For Greening it’s simple: Londoners want assurances about housing, their commute and the safety of themselves and their children. “We didn’t set that out clearly last time – people want to know how the role of mayor is going to make their own lives better. They’re not that interested in personalities, to be honest, and the slanging match it ended up in missed the point.”
Of course, it’s not that clear cut: like him or loathe him, Boris Johnson has been the only Conservative mayor since the role was created in 2000, and a large reason for his success was his sheer force of personality, which won over voters who would not normally be swayed by right-wing politicians. But while the magnetism of the now foreign secretary will be hard to replicate, Greening will certainly appeal to a broad spectrum of Londoners.
She’s experienced – with three Cabinet jobs (transport, international development and education secretary) and a stint in the shadow Treasury under her belt. She certainly doesn’t sound like your average politician: born in Rotherham and educated at the University of Southampton, she is as close to normal as you get in Westminster. She is passionate about giving young people opportunities that might not fall into their lap, as evidenced her growing Social Mobility Pledge. She is also a woman – and a proudly out lesbian.
So is it time for a woman mayor? “Yes, I don’t see why not!” And does the support you’ve been getting encourage you to go for the role? “It’s very flattering to have people feel that it’s something I could do well,” she says.
But while she is a strong believer in the carrot approach to tackling issues like gang violence, Greening doesn’t flinch from talking tough on crime and criminals, backing a stricter Stop and Search approach, harsher penalties for petty crimes and suggesting local councils and police work together to “give off a clear sense that we have a zero tolerance approach on crime”.
The fact she’s already a London MP means she understands the types of crime – suggesting a ban on pillion riders or asking petrol stations to refuse to serve riders who don’t take their helmets off – to tackle moped crime – as well as the regional differences, even within the capital. “The gangs in my part of London are very different to the ones in Tottenham, say – they started a few years back and are now much holder, and have moved onto more serious crime,” she explains. “You’ve got to recognise it’s not one size fits all.”
“But alongside that you need more fundamental measures taken to address underlying issues of why people think getting involved in gangs is a good thing in the first place,” she says, noting that for some London kids the only career ladder they see is the “drug-dealing ladder”.
Beyond the mayoral race and Heathrow – Greening has been front and centre of a blocking campaign since it was announced last week – Brexit is also preying on her mind.
It’s time the Prime Minister gave detailed proposals, including publishing the now-delayed white paper, so businesses and consumers alike have a sense of what is around the corner, she argues.
“It took seven years to deliver a two-week sporting event called the Olympics,” Greening says. “It’s important for our country we have a full strategy from government that is not only clear on the ultimate destination and policy but alongside that, a very detailed proposal on how it will be project managed.”
A Remainer at heart, she refuses to be drawn on which of the customs options she prefers, although she does say the Brexiters’ preferred max fac option has “a number of serious drawbacks”.
And she issues a warning – or a plea – to her former colleagues in Cabinet to get on with the process. “It’s time they recognised it’s less about what they can agree and more about what Parliament can agree. The Prime Minister needs to find where the moderate support in the Tory party is and ensure we are behind her,” she says.
“No one is going to get their perfect Brexit, but it’s time we moved forward from the referendum and draw a line under it. Frankly, there are bigger issues to worry about.”