London—How high can a dead cat bounce? On Thursday, Britain may find out. Though voters also go to the polls that day to elect a new Scottish Parliament, assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland, and local councils all across England, the biggest prize is here in London, where the race to succeed outgoing mayor Boris Johnson has become as ugly as any Republican primary.
Like Johnson and Prime Minister David Cameron, the Conservative candidate, Zac Goldsmith, attended Eton—though unlike them, he was expelled when pot was found in his room, and never bothered to get a university degree. The son of billionaire tycoon Sir James Goldsmith, and reportedly one of the wealthiest members of Parliament, until recently Zac Goldsmith was known mainly as the editor of the Ecologist magazine and as a campaigner on environmental issues.
His opponent is Sadiq Khan, the son of a bus driver and a seamstress who both immigrated to England from Pakistan shortly before he was born. A human rights lawyer until his election to Parliament in 2005, Khan specialized in cases involving violence or discrimination by the police. While Khan was one of 35 MPs who nominated Jeremy Corbyn for the party leadership, he didn’t actually vote for Corbyn. Indeed, his own politics are far more centrist (as a whip in Gordon Brown’s government, it was Khan’s thankless job to try to persuade the incorrigibly rebellious Corbyn to back the party leadership—with scant success).
Although on paper the race looked close—when Goldsmith first ran for Parliament in 2010 he increased the Tory share of the vote in his constituency by 10 percent, adding another 8.5 percent last year—Goldsmith’s mayoral campaign struggled for traction, hamstrung partly by a candidate who, unlike the mediatropic Johnson, seemed more inclined to avoid the press than to court attention. Mainly, though, Goldsmith’s faltering fortunes were symptomatic of a Conservative party at war with itself over Europe: While Cameron and his Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, have staked their political future on Britain voting to remain in Europe on June 23, both Goldsmith and Johnson are firmly in the “Leave” camp.
But after weeks of watching helplessly as Khan steadily widened his lead in the polls, the Tory high command decided to resort to what Sir Lynton Crosby, the Australian political operative who managed both of Johnson’s mayoral victories—and then ran the Tory campaign in 2015—famously described as his “dead cat” strategy: “There is one thing that is absolutely certain about throwing a dead cat on the dining room table—and I don’t mean that people will be outraged, alarmed, disgusted. That is true, but irrelevant. The key point…is that everyone will shout, ‘Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!’; in other words they will be talking about the dead cat, the thing you want them to talk about, and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief.”