Devil is in the detail as Londoners demand better leadership

Local election results in London fall in favour of Boris Johnson's rivals

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson with his dog Dilyn after voting in local council elections on May 5 at a polling station in London. AP
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Two weeks ago, backbench Tory MP Steve Baker stood up in the House of Commons and told Boris Johnson “the gig is up”.

After voters in London cast their votes heavily in favour of Labour in yesterday’s local elections, the sentiment appears widespread across the capital.

Local elections are fought on what voters see on their doorsteps ― bin collections, traffic problems, lack of parking.

But they are also an opportunity for disgruntled voters to send a message that they are unimpressed with the current government.

And with victories for Labour in Barnet, Wandsworth and Westminster, disgruntled voters have done that in spades.

Wandsworth has been a Tory seat since 1978, while Westminster has been blue since its creation in 1964. Both councils were favourites of Margaret Thatcher and stood as totemic Tory bastions.

Farther out, Richmond council in leafy Surrey gained only one Conservative seat. It will not gain the headlines of the central London boroughs, but is still significant.

Just a few years ago it was the constituency of Tory Zac Goldsmith. The council turned to the Lib Dems in 2018 and remained that way ― Labour would never get a sniff ― but is the sort of affluent environment where the Tories must succeed if they are to remain in power.

The issue that caused Mr Baker, a leading Brexiteer who was formerly close to Boris Johnson, to tell the prime minister that he “should be long gone” centred around Partygate and MPs' decision to refer Mr Johnson for a parliamentary investigation into whether he lied to the House of Commons about Downing Street parties during coronavirus lockdowns. Mr Baker felt the apology Mr Johnson issued was short lived and his contrition lasted just a few hours.

No doubt the breaking of pandemic rules in Downing Street ― which Labour gleefully describes as the most fined workplace in Britain ― played a part in voters’ decision to switch allegiance.

Covid restrictions may have been relaxed and workers encouraged to return to their offices, but the memories of lockdown and long months of loneliness still linger. Seeing a leading party apparently behaving as if the rules do not apply to them, does not go down well. Knowing the detail of your own rules matters.

There have been many other issues.

Like his own persona, Mr Johnson’s government has appeared shambolic. Each step of the Covid crisis took two goes for the government to deal with evolving issues ― from PPE and testing to discharging patients to care homes. The government was moving on the hop but took too long to make good decisions.

Policies such as dealing with migration, a traditional Tory subject, have been met with derision. A headline-grabbing plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda caused outrage and seems unlikely to be brought in for months and even then for limited numbers. A bold idea missing practical application.

There has been a seeming lack of action on the cost-of-living crisis, which instead has been met by out-of-touch reactions. When Mr Johnson was confronted on TV this week by a pensioner who travels all day on the bus because she can’t afford to keep warm, he responded by saying he had ensured bus travel was free for the elderly. Missing the point somewhat.

It speaks to a government out of touch with the people on the street and it filters down to grassroot level.

From my own perspective, a canvassing letter from the Conservatives pushed through my letterbox this week was addressed to Mr Carey. No mention of Mrs Carey. Perhaps their database is out of date, and not a deliberate suggestion on who makes decisions on voting in my house. But it is the sort of failure to pay attention to detail that can cause a voter to put his or her tick next to a rival candidate.

If Mr Johnson’s government, and his colleagues in local authorities, keep behaving in this way then the future for London and the rest of the UK appears red.

Published: May 06, 2022, 9:23 AM