9 May 2021

Weekly Briefing: Tone down the Tory triumphalism

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Conservatives could be forgiven for feeling a little smug after this week’s Super Thursday elections.

A big win in Hartlepool, convincing mayoral victories in Teesside and the West Midlands, a decent showing in English councils and a better-than-expected performance in London all suggest a government in rude political health. A giant inflatable Boris outside the by-election count captured the mood of giddy Tory triumphalism nicely.

Keir Starmer’s response so far has been to defenestrate one of his more popular and recognisable frontbenchers in Angela Rayner, while mulling a policy review – mmm, decisive. More concerning than the cack-handed internal politicking is the party’s overall tone of insipid gloom, which often comes across not just as criticism of the government, but distaste for the country itself.

Let’s hope no one in 10 Downing Street is getting too far ahead of themselves though. Yes, the Commons majority is thumping and Labour are doing a determined rebrand as the Banter Party, but there are plenty of reasons to calm the heck down.

First, on Hartlepool, however pleasing the result, it really does need endlessly repeating that it was just a by-election; one 650th of the electoral map up for grabs, in a seat where only 42% of the voters turned out. Remember Ed Miliband’s Labour storming Corby back in 2012, or the Lib Dems’ ‘Remain fightback’ in Richmond in 2016? How about the Tories taking Copeland shortly before the 2017 general election?

As Henry Hill noted yesterday on these pages, the abiding theme of these elections was not a Tory earthquake or Labour spiralling into irrelevance: it was that incumbent parties generally did well, be it Welsh Labour, the SNP or the Tories in England. The ‘vaccine appreciation’ effect that governments of all hues enjoyed this time round won’t last, so that’s another few grains of salt to add to the pinch.

Then there is the small matter of the sheer ambition and cost of the Johnson agenda; the PM has promised huge investment in just about everything, combined with a very expensive green transformation of the economy, all while trying to restore some semblance of order to the public finances. Getting Brexit done was a doddle by comparison. I’d also throw in the apocryphal Macmillan ‘events, dear boy’ quote: Flat-gate has not done much damage to Johnson, but it would be foolish to assume he is somehow politically invincible.

There is also a longer-term trend that should have Conservative brows furrowed. While much ‘Red Wall’ analysis hinges on Brexit, culture wars and wokery, the party’s success has also been underpinned by high home ownership rates. In Hartlepool, for instance, more than half the electorate are home-owners.

But while that’s undoubtedly good news for the Tories in those sorts of seats, it’s also chipping away at their base in the south, where high house prices are forcing left-leaning younger voters out of cities into previously rock solid blue seats.

Now, as it stands this rather scattered ‘Blue Wall’ of trending suburban constituencies is no cure-all for Labour; there simply aren’t enough of them to compensate for the seats they have lost elsewhere. But if the last few years have showed anything, it’s that apparently safe seats of all colours can become marginal quicker than you can say ‘sky-high deposit’. So if the Tories aren’t persuaded by the overwhelming moral and economic case for finally sorting out our dysfunctional housing system, cold electoral calculation ought to do the job for them.

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John Ashmore is Editor of CapX.