Conservatives' London wipeout does not bode well for future elections

Boris Johnson's 'partygate' revelations have resulted in loss of key Conservative councils

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The Tories I know are in shock. To lose one totemic council in London is one thing, but two or three — that’s a different matter.

Barnet, Westminster and Wandsworth have been Conservative strongholds for decades. It’s more than that, though. Barnet was a North London beacon, adjacent to Labour boroughs.

Westminster, being so close to the House of Parliament, was deeply symbolic — Tories in charge ever since the council was created in 1964, cheek by jowl with the Commons, the breeding ground for numerous MPs.

Wandsworth was the party’s pin-up, the London council hailed by Margaret Thatcher, no less, as the national exemplar, the one in London with the lowest local taxes, the borough of all boroughs that really knew how to manage its finances.

Today, Labour is the number one party in London, with the Liberal Democrats holding second. The challenge they face is, as ever, to translate victories in local elections and by-elections on to the bigger general election stage.

Make no mistake: for the Tories, this is a humiliating state of affairs. Their explanation is that London, along with other major cities, has been heading in that direction for a while, and that this time, the “Remain” vote continued to weigh heavily, along with the parlous state of the economy and climbing cost of living.

Number Ten holding parties during lockdown and a lack of faith in the prime minister, in other words, were not key.

There is still a hangover from Brexit, which has been compounded by problems including trading with the EU and staff shortages. But it’s not so influential.

Rising household bills, likewise, while they provoke alarm are not laid at Boris Johnson’s door — this is a global issue and there is not much the UK government can do to resolve it.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson admitted that his party's performance in local elections was disappointing. Reuters

No, it was “partygate” and disillusion with Mr Johnson that counted more.

In London, there was another factor: the feeling that this administration favours the North over the South. It’s all about levelling up elsewhere. London and the South-East see the mantra as levelling down for them. Mr Johnson and his colleagues, so the argument goes, are not interested in aiding the metropolis; worse, they are actively seeking to reduce its hegemony.

Not that Labour can take much comfort either from the results across the UK. There was no breakthrough, no evidence of a nationwide surge of love for Keir Starmer and his team.

Labour is treading water, which is worrying for the party — this is midterm, with a divisive, in large part unpopular prime minister and they’re not overpowering their opponents. Something is not right and increasingly, the feeling is that the leader is to blame.

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There was no breakthrough, no evidence of a nationwide surge of love for Keir Starmer and his team

In one sense, this helps the Conservative cause and gives them some reassurance. Things, they can claim, are not as bad as all that. With a fair wind, it is possible that if a general election was called tomorrow, they would emerge the winner. Considering all the scrapes their boss has been in, that is a remarkable conclusion.

Another, though, is that this is precisely the right moment to remove Mr Johnson. What lies ahead, the reasoning goes, is only more trouble — that is the nature of Boris, to lurch from one disaster to another and certainly that has been his record to date.

Move now, choose someone reliable and who, critically, displays empathy across the socio-economic spectrum, let them build familiarity and trust, and the party’s fortunes will be in a much better place for the next election contest.

That is being said in some Tory circles and it means that far from being able to dismiss these local elections as of little consequence — which is what he would prefer — this is in fact a very dangerous outcome for Mr Johnson. His hold on the leadership is fragile, as is Mr Starmer’s. Both main parties face some hard thinking and perhaps tough decisions after this.

Published: May 06, 2022, 6:16 PM
Chris Blackhurst

Chris Blackhurst

Chris Blackhurst is a former editor of The Independent, based in London