In the wake of the 1990 local elections, Kenneth Baker, then Conservative Party Chairman, spun defeat into victory. By concentrating the media’s attention on Tory holds in Wandsworth and Westminster, he stood perceptions of a bad night for the Conservatives on their head. Is CCHQ preparing to do the same on the morning of May 5?
Obviously, it is in the business of minimising expectations. So it will doubtless be pleased by some of the more excitable coverage this week, which suggested that the Party is en route to disaster in London – in other words, a near-wipeout in the councils it holds, losing Barnet, Kingston, Richmond, Westminster and Wandsworth. There are claims that, in the wake of Grenfell, Kensington and Chelsea is also in play. That would leave the Conservatives holding only in Bexley, Bromley and Hillingdon.
This grisly prognosis may turn out to be correct. But it is worth listening to other voices and probing the small print. James Kanagasooriam is credited in Tim Shipman’s All Out War as playing a major role in Ruth Davidson’s polling and campaign success in Scotland. He tweeted this week that “the Tories aren’t at risk of losing all councils. Bexley+Bromley likely to stay blue. Expect big Tory gains in Havering/Sutton. Hillingdon looks like a hold. Kingston, Richmond, Barnet, Wandsworth and Westminster all v.close”.
Rob Hayward, who called the EU referendum right, has written that the Party faces “likely defeat in two councils” and the “fight of their lives” to cling on to three others” – the two being Barnet and Kingston; the three being Westminster, Wandsworth and Richmond. He also said that the Conservatives “may be in a better position come May to ease the losses”. John Curtice has written cautiously that defeat in Westminster and Wandsworth “may not be inevitable”.
Overall, the Tories are certainly in a worse place in London than much of the rest of the country. The capital is younger, more pro-migration, more liberal and above all more anti-Brexit than most of the other urban conurbations that are holding local elections this year. ConservativeHome is the last place to oppose more party experimentation: we’re all for local campaigning identifies, including in the capital.
But Ruth Davidson was right to suggest that a breakaway in London is not an option. In any event, the capital has less devolution than Scotland, and parallels between the two can mislead. The brutal truth is that there is no short-term fix to London’s hostility to Brexit, and the only medium-term one may be the passing of time. And it is worth remembering that not all of the capital holds this antipathy: it tends to be stronger near the centre, weaker at the margins. The knife crime factor, and fear of rcrime, is another wild card.
Which is a reminder that the capital isn’t a single political entity. Rather, it is still in some ways a Napoleon-of-Notting-Hill mass of small towns – which include the conservative fastnesses of the south-east; the south-west Tory-Liberal Democrat marginals, which are sui generis, and the northern parts around Enfield that have been bending Labour. These now stretch to Chipping Barnet, where Theresa Villiers majority was slashed last year, and to Chingford and Wood Green, where Iain Duncan Smith’s also fell.
Our own Harry Phibbs put this view forward recently on this site – citing Havering, which Kanagasooriam also names, along with Sutton, as a venue for possible Party gains. A more subtle danger for the Conservatives is that they hold some of their headline councils, but are all but wiped out in ones which they held until fairly recently, such as Ealing and Redbridge. One source claimed to ConservativeHome that “the anti-Corbyn Jewish vote in Barnet may already be maxed out”.
If so, the Labour leader’s supporters are bound to greet the result as evidence that their hero has swept aside biased mainstream media reporting of anti-semitism in the party. If the party meets expectations elsewhere, it could be that only Corbynite coups in Labour councils can start to shift floating voters back to the blue column in substantial numbers. But while it may meet these expectations, it may not. Another source told this site that a meeting of senior Tory leaders a fortnight ago was “bullish” about the results.