Political analyst Robert Hayward attracted headlines last week with projections that the Conservatives could lose control of four of the seven London boroughs they presently hold, resulting in the departure of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister. The Tory lord said Wandsworth is “almost certain” to be captured by Labour, with Westminster and Barnet in peril and maybe Hillingdon too.
Only the latter has failed to be dubbed a “Tory flagship” at some point in its history. Should two of the four be sunk, the Tory former Mayor might struggle to stay afloat. In Hayward’s view such losses in the capital would be replicated elsewhere and cause Conservative Party members and MPs alike to question whether Johnson should remain their leader. Since then a YouGov poll for Sky News has found that a third of the Tory rank and file think Johnson should stand down as their leader and nearly half think chancellor Rishi Sunak would do a better job.
What are the chances? Hayward knows his trade, but Johnson’s national position could recover in the next few months and there are local factors at work in several London boroughs that look likely to work in the Conservatives’ favour.
In Wandsworth, for example, Labour recently retained a seat in a by-election by just a single vote having previously won it with ease. The party’s councillors have been at odds, resulting in the removal of Leonie Cooper as group leader and her replacement by Simon Hogg, who led the Labour challenge in 2018. They cut the Tories’ majority to seven seats though one or two local Conservatives thought they should have done better and there’s a touch of Long Corbyn about some of their councillors’ preoccupations.
Banging on about the Nine Elms sky pool with a Continuity Jeremy newspaper columnist is a strange way to go about wooing centre-ish Tory voters. In other news, I recently wrote about having to take evasive action when a boy racer cyclist bumped up on to a pavement in order to by-pass a red light. This, according to one of the Wandsworth comrades, betrayed a deep dislike of women on my part. You might think ascribing misogyny to a 63-year-old grandad for preferring not to be mown down by a man on a speeding bicycle about one third of his age a bit of a stretch. Voters in Wandsworth might find such a mindset similarly weird.
In Westminster Labour’s challenge is the familiar one of uneven distribution of support. Local members can show you remarkable graphs tracking an overall decline in the Tory vote – Labour almost won the popular vote last time – but they know better than anyone that this isn’t the same thing as winning lots more seats. Only a few in Westminster are truly marginal, and Labour will need more than a few to take control of this long-standing jewel in the London Tory crown. Still, they’re giving it loads about the Marble Arch Mound and there are experienced operators in their ranks. Stranger things have happened and central London is a strange place just now.
Barnet, fleetingly the “easyjet council“, topped Labour’s target list in 2014 and 2018 but the party fell short both times. However, four years ago the Tories had “Jeremy” to rescue them and long-term demographic trends aren’t in their favour. Plus, boundary changes will have an effect. That said, as with some other outer London boroughs, passions in Barnet have become inflamed over Transport for London wanting to build housing on station car parks and, like other “local character” and development issues, will need to be handled with care by Labour and Tories alike.
As for Hillingdon, the Conservatives slightly strengthened their position in 2018, contrary to some expectations. It would be a big deal if Labour turned the Tories out there, but keep in mind a recent Focaldata poll which found PM Johnson on course to lose his parliamentary seat in that borough.
Meanwhile, there is a whole other side to this year’s borough elections story as it stands in which the Conservatives are the hunters and Labour the game.
In Croydon, where an inaugural directly elected mayor contest will take place, the Tories hope to gain from Labour’s recent financial management woes and continuing to pretend, in the glorious traditional of Shaun Bailey, that Sadiq Khan is on the point of forcing all motorists to pay to cross the Greater London boundary. It is a worthless scare story. Will they really keep peddling it until polling day?
Labour might also be on the defensive in Enfield and Harrow, and the Tories will be hoping to take bites out that resilient but not indestructible Liberal Democrat fortress of Sutton. Elsewhere, the distinctive local politics of Tower Hamlets and Havering might generate their own intriguing contests. On London will be producing plenty of coverage of the coming campaigns and star contributor Lewis Baston will be going into finer detail before too long.
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