Last night the LSE and London Chamber of Commerce hosted the first major debate between the five main party candidates hoping to succeed Boris Johnson as Mayor.
Unlike the bitter clashes between Ken and Boris which marked the 2012 campaign and which, on one occasion, almost came to blows this was a largely calm and measured affair.
Neither Labour’s Sadiq Khan nor Tory runner Zac Goldsmith, the two candidates most likely to emerge as the next mayor, had much new to say, preferring to spend the night repeating various announcements and claims they’ve made over the past few months.
So from Zac we heard that Sadiq, unlike him, doesn’t have the relationship with Government necessary to deliver for the capital, while Sadiq insisted that he was going to be relentlessly pro-business and better understood the plight of London’s renters than his opponent.
Neither made any gaffes or said anything outlandish, though Goldsmith was unwise not to directly challenge Khan’s claims that he believed people on ordinary incomes can afford to buy homes costing £450,000.
He’d probably do well to learn from the defeat of Khan’s previous challenger for the mayoralty, Labour’s Tessa Jowell, and not allow his keenness to seem ‘nice’ to gift his opponent some free hits.
A bit more obvious hunger for the role would also help.
For his part Sadiq seemed surprised by the lack of applause for his declaration that he was the minister who piloted the supplementary business rates bill through Parliament – a far more accurate, if less crowd pleasing, claim than his previous boats to have delivered Crossrail.
When made at Labour’s hustings such boasts went unchallenged, but is it possible he dropped the Crossrail line to avoid the inevitable denouncement from Goldsmith or Liberal Democrat challenger Caroline Pidgeon?
Pidgeon was the panel’s feistiest performer, pointedly contrasting her own 8 year term on the London Assembly with her rivals’ lack of City Hall knowledge and experience.
And she provided the evening’s only real flashpoint when she denounced UKIP candidate Peter Whittle’s support for leaving the EU as an “insane” threat to the capital’s economy.
But, perhaps aware of her own bruiser-like tendencies, Pidgeon ensured that her opening statement was peppered with references to her experiences as a part-time worker and a mum, real-world experiences which could help her connect with enough voters to reclaim the party’s traditional status as the third biggest on the London Assembly to which she’s also seeking re-election.
While many in the audience won’t have supported Whittle’s desire for Brexit, they very clearly warmed to his often self-deprecating approach and, at the end of the evening, rewarded his pseudo-coming out declaration of wanting to be London’s first gay mayor with thunderous applause.
His answers were so mainstream – he believes Londoners should have first dibs on homes, that local policing matters as does having cops who come from the areas they patrol, and that the black cab trade needs protection from unfair competition – that anyone coming in part-way through could have been forgiven for thinking he was the Tory or Labour candidate.
Whittle isn’t going to be London’s next Mayor but I expect he’ll finish in the top four and could even find himself elected to the Assembly if he can secure enough media coverage to deploy his charms which easily defy and confound most people’s expectations of a UKIP candidate.
And finally on to the Greens’ Sian Berry who at one point had to endure a painful mocking of her utterly divorced from reality plan to wish up £2bn from London councils’ already squeezed budgets to buy and then close City Airport.
Such ideas may well guarantee you a warm welcome from local campaigners and placard-wavers but they rob campaigns of credibility with the wider electorate and seldom go down well with the crowds who turn up to debates and hustings.
With her four opponents all working hard to sound reasoned and mainstream, Berry risks sounding like a student protestor who has managed to invade the main stage.
If she’s to have any chance of being taken seriously by people outside the core Green membership, and so keep her party’s seats on the Assembly, she’s going to need to unveil some mainstream ideas to sit alongside the more exotic ones which have dominated her campaign to date.