The Tories have failed to recruit any high-profile candidates to take on Sadiq Khan in the next London mayoral race after the last remaining party big hitter in contention ruled himself out.
The party’s hopes of unseating the Labour mayor from City Hall in 2020 suffered a setback when James Cleverly, the Conservative deputy chairman, confirmed he would not stand for the nomination.
He tweeted: “We will have a strong candidate who will beat weak, petulant and disappointing Sadiq Khan in 2020 but it won’t be me.”
The MP left the field just a day before applications closed on Wednesday, alarming some Conservatives who believed that picking an experienced political operator was their best chance of beating Khan.
A senior party insider said: “There was a strong list of names who might have gone for it but one by one they have dropped out. It’s a tough gig for us when Khan looks like he’s on course for a second term, but it will be even harder now.”
Justine Greening, the MP for Putney and former cabinet minister, has already dashed the hopes of activists by ruling herself out, saying she wanted to focus instead on improving social mobility from Westminster.
Tory party chiefs had also been hoping to persuade Lady Brady, the businesswoman and regular on BBC One’s The Apprentice, and senior Tory MEP Syed Kamall, but both declined to throw their hats in the ring.
One senior Tory tried to play down the party’s failure to attract a household name. “We decided that we would focus on a long and professional campaign rather than rely on celebrity status of the candidate. We’ll have a long list that reflects London and a good candidate, focused on policy and delivering for Londoners,” he said.
The Tories were badly tainted by Zac Goldsmith’s unsuccessful campaign in 2016, which was criticised for its racist undertones and which many Conservative politicians feared did the party permanent damage to its reputation in the capital.
More than two dozen Tories are understood to have applied for the nomination, the majority of whom come from local government. The list will be whittled down to three or four next month with the final shortlist going to a vote of London members.
The successful candidate will be presented to this autumn’s party conference and then have more than 18 months to boost their profile. Many London Tories felt Goldsmith was not given enough time to establish his own campaign.
The longlist of applicants is understood to include the millionaire businessman Richard Tice, cofounder of Leave.EU, the former Boris Johnson aide Kulveer Ranger and London assembly member Shaun Bailey, a former David Cameron adviser.
Munira Mirza, who was Johnson’s highly regarded culture tsar during his stint as London mayor, and Nickie Aiken, the leader of Westminster city council, have both ruled themselves out, however, with Tory insiders admitting they had struggled to persuade women to apply.
Ben Rogers, the director of the Centre for London thinktank, said: “You would think that big names would look at the surprise success that Conservative candidates had in the metro mayoral elections and at Boris Johnson’s two terms at City Hall.
“I don’t think it’s a done deal for Sadiq. If somebody was a really able campaigner at the very least they would be able to make quite a dent in his dominance. The Tories need somebody who can be independent from the national party and can unify both Conservative voters and swing voters in London.”