The Observer view on the London mayoral video: dog-whistles and lies show Tories will stop at nothing to win

<span>The Conservative party was forced to delete the parts of its London mayoral campaign video that used footage of a stampede in New York.</span><span>Photograph: conservatives</span>
The Conservative party was forced to delete the parts of its London mayoral campaign video that used footage of a stampede in New York.Photograph: conservatives

The Conservative mayoral campaign for London had developed a nasty tone well before last week. But last Monday, it sank to a new low with an attack video that used misinformation and footage from New York to try to depict London as the “crime capital” of the world.

The ad – reportedly made by Conservative campaign headquarters – makes a number of false accusations. Mocked up to resemble an American disaster film, it describes London as “under siege” with “criminals ruling the streets”. This is despite the fact that London has one of the lowest anti-social behaviour rates in the country, that murder rates have fallen in recent years and that, while knife crime rates are higher than average, they are more prevalent in the West Midlands, which has a Conservative mayor. People are less likely to be a victim of crime in London than on average in England.

The misinformation does not stop there. The ad claims that the Ulez scheme, which charges polluting vehicles £12.50 a day to enter the London low-emission zone and primarily uses cameras to catch non-payers, is enforced by officers “dressed in black, with faces covered in masks, terrorising communities at the beck and call of their London mayor master”. It asserts that the mayor, Sadiq Khan, wants to decriminalise the use of illegal drugs when he has said no such thing. Perhaps most insidiously, it accuses Khan of having “seized power”, an odd way to refer to him twice winning a democratic mandate in London-wide elections.

The Conservatives deleted the ad after it was widely criticised for passing off footage from New York as London, but reissued it with these clips deleted. This behaviour is unbefitting of any political party that wants to be taken seriously by voters, let alone a governing party. The Conservatives have happily deployed misinformation since the Brexit referendum campaign, chaired by Boris Johnson. The claim that leaving the EU would free up £350m a week for the NHS has since been decreed a misuse of official statistics. The claim that staying in the EU would mean a “new border” with Syria and Iraq was wrong. Johnson misled the public as prime minister on the Northern Ireland protocol and lied to parliament about his conduct during the pandemic. Rishi Sunak has continued in this vein, for example misleading voters about Labour’s immigration proposals.

This is rich hypocrisy from a prime minister who has warned about the risks of disinformation. It is poisonous for our political culture, breaking the unwritten honour code that politicians should not lie and spread false claims.

But it is also the continuation of an appallingly prejudiced brand of campaigning the Conservatives have long used against Khan, London’s first Muslim mayor. In 2016, David Cameron and Conservative mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith tried to falsely smear Khan as a security threat and associate him with Islamist extremism.

The current Tory mayoral candidate, Susan Hall, has replied approvingly to a tweet that used the Islamophobic trope of referring to Khan as mayor of “Londonistan” and claimed last year that the Jewish community was “frightened” because of the divisive attitudes of Khan, a claim rubbished by the Board of Deputies of British Jews.

This is the mark of a party that has adopted the campaigning tactics of Donald Trump, all too willing to lie and to use dog-whistles to stir up community tensions because it believes it will benefit electorally. It is dangerous and toxic, and any Conservative politician who believes that truth and decency still have a place in public life should call it out.