Dave Hill: A Prime Minister Truss is not what London Conservatives need

Dave Hill: A Prime Minister Truss is not what London Conservatives need

For decades the electoral fortunes of the Conservative Party in London have been in decline. Those of its members in the capital who have an inkling why will not have been greatly cheered by last night’s final hustings in the Tory leadership contest.

“I don’t believe those people who say London is a Labour city,” Liz Truss, the likely winner of the race, declared from the Wembley stage. “No, it is not.”

The claim, of course, sits oddly next to the facts: London has a twice-elected Labour Mayor; 21 of London’s 32 local authorities are run by Labour compared with the Conservatives’ seven; 49 of London’s 73 parliamentary seats were won by Labour MPs in 2019 and only 21 by Tories.

But let’s not take Truss too literally. After all, her campaign to succeed Boris Johnson as Prime Minister has been marked by exotic assertions that fare poorly when they encounter plain reality: the brag that she would “ignore” Nicola Sturgeon, swiftly rescinded; the plan to “level down” public sector pay that apparently never existed; the “handouts” she’s against, but maybe not.

“London is a city where people want opportunities and they want to get on in life, and that’s what we can deliver, and we can make London Conservative again,” she said. How would this be brought about? “I’d unlock the opportunities of Brexit, getting all of those EU laws off our statute book by the end of 2023,” said Truss to slavish cheers.

Here was a fine example of the double think upon which Brexit’s champions now depend: they congratulate themselves and their darling “Boris” on having got Brexit “done” while at the same time proclaiming that, actually, it isn’t quite “done” yet, and that Britannia must once again be released from European bondage by their freedom-loving hands.

The applause Truss received confirmed the desire among Tory activists to live in a Groundhog Day world in which the EU dragon is slain by bedtime in different ways for all eternity, but how are such sentiments likely to be received in a capital which voted by 60% to 40% to Remain?

Naturally, Truss used plenty of grandstand space to deride Sadiq Khan. “He’s anti-everything,” she complained. Top of the Labour Mayor’s list of sins? “He’s anti-car!” The monster. He’s in favour of higher TfL funding, more affordable housing and better skills training too. And he is not alone.

In its recent manifesto for the next PM, BusinessLDN, formerly London First, the organisation which represents many of the capital’s biggest employers, asked for those very things. Truss also called Khan “anti-business”. Yet he seems more aligned with what London businesses seek than the impending leader of the supposed “party of business” is these days.

Truss also criticised the planning system. Citing her experience when a member of Greenwich Council’s planning committee, she bemoaned “top down housing targets” and planning inspectors that mean local authority decisions can be over-ruled, and she pledged: “I would give power to local communities – I would enable the London suburbs who want the family homes to build the homes that they want and that local people want”.

There are proper debates to be had about the types of housing being built in London and at what level of government the power to make decisions about it, and development in general, should lie. But Truss’s remarks appear to be a recipe for less home building in London, not more, which might not be the response to enduring problems of affordability and supply that London voters as a whole want to hear.

Truss spoke of setting up “low tax investment zones to drive jobs and growth across our city”, legislation to curb the power of transport unions, and reducing crime. “We have seen crime go up,” she told broadcaster Nick Ferrari in an interview after her speech, and repeated the equally contestable view that Johnson “did a very good job of tackling crime” when he was Mayor – a contention with which her interrogator firmly agreed.

Have we seen “crime go up” in London? Answers to that question vary according to which offences recorded by the Metropolitan Police are counted and since when.

The horrible recent killing of Thomas O’Halloran has provided a handy hook for politicians and broadcasters so inclined to proclaim that violent crime in London is rising unchecked and that the current Mayor is to blame, but the figures on homicide, violence with injury and so-called “knife crime”, where a bladed instrument is used in some way during the committing of an offence, tell a different story.

Meanwhile, in terms of all types of recorded crime, London had one of the lowest rates in England in 2021/22. And the endlessly repeated claim that anything Johnson did as Mayor explains why there were falls in some categories of offending during some of his eight years as City Hall, seriously overstates the capacity of any London Mayor to make an impact on crime rates, given the limitations of the powers that come with the office and factors that influence those rates which lie far beyond City Hall’s control.

Discussion of crime has, very sadly, long since entered the dismal realm of post-truth where much of politics and journalism is concerned. That is unlikely to change and the potential advantage to be gained from sensationalism, misrepresentation and encouraging “crime wave” fears might indeed help the Conservatives electorally in the capital, should circumstances be favourable and a Prime Minister Truss find time to join in.

But apart from that, Truss’s performance offered little hope for Tories in the city. Even if large U-turns occur if and when she moves into Number 10, she has already painted a clear picture of herself in the public mind – one which even national opinion polls suggest may not be well-liked. She protests enthusiasm for London, yet shows little sign so far that the form of Conservatism she wants to personify will improve her party’s standing with London’s voters.

Image from LBC coverage of the Tory leadership hustings at Wembley, 31 August 2022.

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