Magazine article The Spectator

Labour Is Poised to Take the Capital

Magazine article The Spectator

Labour Is Poised to Take the Capital

Article excerpt

The Tories are bracing themselves for disaster in London

Ever since last year's general election, when Jeremy Corbyn inspired the strongest Labour surge since 1945, the Conservatives have been unsure if this was a freak occurrence or the start of something bigger. As they have learnt to their cost, opinion polls aren't as reliable as they once were: only election results matter. There will be plenty next month, with seats on more than 150 councils all over England up for grabs. The Tories are nervous in lots of areas. But what terrifies them is London.

The capital has served as the incubator of Corbynism, a brand of politics once laughed off as a niche Islington interest, yet now with an undeniable national appeal. All 32 London boroughs are up for election, and nothing is certain. Not so long ago, the Tory party knew that -- no matter how bleak the national picture -- there were parts of the capital that would always remain blue. Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea, Wandsworth -- these boroughs were the jewels in the Conservative crown. Even at the height of Tony Blair's popularity, the party held on to them. Campaigning in their smarter postcodes was considered almost déclassé.

But this year, the Tories are in the fight of a lifetime to keep hold of every one of the nine councils they control. For many ministers, the working assumption is that the city is about to be painted red. As one cabinet minister puts it: 'There is only one word to describe the party in London: screwed.'

For an idea of how bad things look, consider the Tory peer and psephologist Robert Hayward's recent projection that the Conservatives will lose about 100 council seats of their 612, which would be a worse result than in 1994, just a few years before Tony Blair's first landslide. That the Prime Minister recently chose to sit down with her nemesis George Osborne, in his role as editor of the Evening Standard, is a tell-tale sign of the depth of her concern.

The extent of the panic among London Conservatives has been so great that they have been considering a drastic step. Over the past year, a series of meetings has been held at venues including Tory HQ. On the agenda was a radical idea: that London's Tories should formally break away from the national party and become a separate entity with their own brand and leader, like the Scottish Tories under Ruth Davidson. It would create clear water between them and a national party that, in the words of one insider, is becoming 'very provincial' under Theresa May.

Borough leaders, Greater London Authority members, association chairmen, London's remaining Tory MPs -- the vast majority were in favour of the idea. But word came down from the very top: nice try, but it's not going to happen. Someone familiar with the meetings reveals: 'We are a very centralised party now -- and we were told to shut up, basically.' In another moment of desperation, the Conservative party asked Ms Davidson if her team -- after their outstanding performance at the general election -- would consider heading south to mastermind the London campaign. The answer was a polite but firm 'no'. The Scottish Tories had performed an astonishing recovery -- but it was not (just) due to a well-run campaign. The renaissance came after painstaking work to identify why national Conservatism wasn't working in Scotland. It was a long process, and the London Tories have yet to make the first step.

In recent weeks, Tory MPs have been campaigning in London -- and the experience has not been invigorating. 'Our council leader in Westminster, Nickie Aiken, thinks she is going to lose. Our leader in Wandsworth thinks he is going to lose,' says one. The two biggest problems on the doorstep are Theresa May, who seems to embody a Shires Toryism, and Brexit, which three-in-five Londoners voted against.

At times, it seems the London party has been too complacent, as if it assumed wealth and Toryism went together. …

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