Londoners get to vote for the next Mayor of London in less than a month’s time and the debate between the two main frontrunner candidates on Tuesday evening was highly anticipated as a benchmark moment for both Sadiq Khan and Zac Goldsmith to put forward their cases.
However, the 200-strong audience was stunned into silence at the beginning of the session when both — the Labour party’s candidate Khan and the Conservative party’s candidate Goldsmith — descended into a row over racism allegations.
The debate — which was hosted by City AM at the Institute of Directors in central London on Tuesday evening and attended by Business Insider — was delayed by nearly 15 minutes as the pair’s introductory remarks descended extraordinarily into a war of words over recent allegations of racism against Goldsmith’s campaign.
In his opening remarks, Tooting MP Khan said he was “disappointed” by the tone of his rival’s campaign, and said it was “negative and divisive.”
Goldsmith said in his speech that Khan had “given platforms, oxygen and even cover — over and over and over again — to those who seek to do our police and capital harm.” He also said Khan “has tried to silence questions about his links [to extremists] by shamelessly accusing anyone who raises them of being Islamophobic.”
Goldsmith has also called Khan “radical” “divisive” and “dangerous” when talking about his opponent in the past.
Khan’s remarks also came after Labour MP Yvette Cooper described Goldsmith’s campaign as a “full-blown racist stream” in an article published on The Times’ website Red Box.
On Monday, Khan sent a public tweet to Goldsmith, implying his religion was being used against him by the Conservative MP’s campaign.
In response, however, Richmond Park MP Goldsmith said Khan’s religion is irrelevant, and that the problem relates to his “judgment,” before citing a number of cases where he believed the Labour candidate had given support to religious extremists, such as Babar Ahmed — a man who was convicted for supporting terrorist activity.
However, Khan later distanced himself from Cooper’s article, telling Goldsmith “I don’t think you’re racist or Islamophobic,” however didn’t hesitate to respond to the Tory candidate’s claims.
Khan said instead: “I had a fatwa put out against me for voting for same-sex marriage. I’ve been fighting extremism all my adult life. There’s a very good reason why Zac has spent so much time talking about me and that’s because he has no vision for this city. You should know better, Zac.”
This how Twitter users reacted to the exchange
The personal attacks didn’t stop there, though.
Later in the evening, Khan responded to an audience question about what he admires most about his rival by saying he “missed” the “old” Zac Goldsmith, who he described as charming and good company.
However after the opening remarks and the following discussion was over, Khan and Goldsmith continued on to debate what the audience was gathered there for — to hear the election front-runners discuss issues such as housing, transport fares and the challenges facing small businesses.
Khan reiterated his promise to freeze bus and tube fares for four years and again dismissed Goldsmith’s claims that his policy will leave a £1.9 billion gap in the Transport for London budget.
The pair agreed that London needed more devolved powers, however Goldsmith claimed only a mayor who can work closely with the government could deliver such changes, not Khan who he described as a “tribal” politician.
The pair also both ruled out using greenbelt land — restricted areas of land surrounding a city — to build more homes in London, and said the key to solving the capital’s increasing demand was to build on untapped brownbelt space — land previously used for industrial or commercial purposes.
Goldsmith also confirmed his support for a Brexit, saying remaining in the 28-nation bloc would be “choosing to remain on the edge of something that we would have little control.”
The London mayoral election will take place on May 5.