4 January 2018

How can the Conservatives solve their London problem?


The local elections in London in May could be annihilation for the Conservatives. So says Lord Hayward, a former MP with a knack for predicting elections correctly. London has always been a Labour city, add Tories quietly getting their excuse in early. The fear is the party could actually lose control of the flagship boroughs of Westminster, Wandsworth, Kensington & Chelsea, Richmond, and Kingston & Bromley.

Proper poll data is hard to come by, but a common sense analysis of the situation brings several observations into sharp relief. Here are just some reasons why Lord Hayward is likely to be right:

Brexit has been taken badly in London, the very temple of the bankers, the metropolitan elites and the “citizens of nowhere” derided not just by the Leave campaign but the Prime Minister herself.

London is also the power base of Corbynism, the Ardennes forest through which the opposition leader’s tanks surged in the General Election last year. Labour took 54 per cent of the vote and 39 of the 73 seats in Greater London, including the totemic seats of Kensington and Battersea (where I live).

Unlike then, the local elections franchise will enable EU citizens resident in London to vote. They cannot wait to stick two fingers up at Theresa May.

The crazy new stamp duty regime means many middle class voters in London who might vote Tory cannot move house and are angry.

The Grenfell Fire, very unfairly, has become emblematic of the failings of old-style Tory local government in London.

The editor of the Evening Standard, the principal media outlet in London, former chancellor George Osborne, never misses an opportunity to take a pop at the Prime Minister.

Excessive rail fare rises for commuters mean even many of these suburban stalwarts are ready to rebel against the Conservatives and support Jeremy Corbyn’s policy of renationalisation (code for putting the railways back together after the Tory Humpty Dumpties broke them up).

The Government is pressing ahead with a Third Runway at Heathrow, even though it is the most expensive, noisiest and complicated scheme for airport expansion (here I must declare an interest as a promoter of the cheaper, quieter, simpler extended runway option, which the Department of Transport has repeatedly tried to strangle.

In other words, not only are the Tories in for a massive, exercise-book-down-trousers thrashing, they probably deserve it. This I might add, is no reflection on the efforts of the hundreds of Conservative councillors in London who quietly do a good job. It is just a brutal turn of the political wheel.

What, one might wonder, can the party do about it?

Assuming that major policy reversals like cutting stamp duty and rail fare rises are not immediately possible, one thing which can be done is to give the party proper leadership and focus in the capital by moving to select the candidate for the 2020 Mayoral election early.

Giving the Conservative a non-Theresa leader in London, with a nice cosmopolitan feel, who could counter Sadiq Khan, would in itself be progress. Interestingly, such a person would probably also have to stand up to the Conservatives in Westminster on all sorts of issues, from business rates to re-introducing stop and search to fight the surge in violent crime in London. They might become the test pilot for a post-Brexit, post-May Conservative revival.

Somebody like Nick Boles, the energetic, modernising MP for Grantham and Stamford, or the inspirational teacher Katharine Birbalsingh or even Kemi Badenoch, the MP for Saffron Walden, who was partly raised in Wimbledon, would fit the bill.

But there are other reasons to get going early.

One of the many shortcomings exposed by Zac Goldsmith’s disastrous mayoral campaign in 2015 is that the Tory party machine in London is not firing on all cylinders. Mr Goldsmith was chosen as candidate in an “Open Primary” just six months before the election. Despite anyone paying £1 being able to vote, the contest mustered only 9,200 voters compared to the near 90,000 Labour members who participated in the selection of Sadiq Khan.

In order to run a proper selection of a credible Mayoral candidate, the Conservatives must first go on a recruitment drive to ensure that tens of thousands of new members are involved in the process, encouraged by the chance to influence both policies in London but also look to the future with confidence. That could take months.

In the next few weeks, a Cabinet reshuffle is expected. It will likely see the party chairman Patrick McLoughlin step down. The first job of his successor should be to ask: “What shall we do about London?” The risk is that a drubbing in the capital city could be a prelude to the Government’s own ultimate demise.

George Trefgarne is founder of Boscobel & Partners, a communications firm