Choppy Waters Await Boris Johnson After Local Election Results Tories Say Are Bad “On Any Measure”
6 min read
According to one government official who was present when Conservative Campaign Headquarters briefed Downing Street on the scale of the Tory party's local election losses on Friday, "nobody was celebrating".
The Conservatives lost almost 500 council seats across Great Britain following Thursday’s poll — far more than projections published during the campaign period had suggested.
The party was defeated by Labour in its stronghold London boroughs of Barnet, Westminster and Wandsworth. It slumped to third place in Scotland and lost significant ground in Wales. In traditional Tory areas in the South of England, where large numbers of Conservative constituencies are located, the party was overwhelmed by Ed Davey's Liberal Democrats.
A senior Tory MP said Boris Johnson was this weekend messaging backbenchers in an attempt to get a "temperature check" of how the party was feeling about the results. In the weeks leading up to polling day, there was a belief that a poor set of local election results would be the trigger for a number of Conservative MPs to submit letters of no confidence in the Prime Minister.
Heading into the weekend, however, government sources denied that the results were disastrous and sought instead to deflect criticism onto Labour, whose performance was also less than spectacular.
"If you whizz through past election results for this stage in the electoral cycle it's bad, but it could have been worse," a senior source told PoliticsHome.
Another senior government source accepted that the party got "a severe ticking off in Wales and Scotland," but believed "it always goes that way".
While it was a bruising night for the Prime Minister, there was some confidence in government that Labour didn't perform well enough to demonstrate it is on course to winning the next general election, with Lib Dems instead seeing significant surges in Tory heartlands.
“The overall numbers aren’t great. On any measure, they are bad," a former Cabinet minister, who has been critical of Johnson's leadership, told PoliticsHome.
“But the truth is, what you needed for a Tory disaster is firstly, the government to do badly and secondly, Labour to do really well. The big winners were the Liberal Democrats, who took considerably more seats than Labour. This isn’t the start of a march to Number 10 for the Labour Party."
Another senior Tory MP said the results "weren't catastrophic" but "very much at the lower end of expectations” and not simply a classic case of "mid-term blues" for the government.
Chris Curtis, head of polling at Opinium, said the scale of the Conservative party's losses on Thursday had surpassed most expectations, and described them as "quite dramatic".
“It’s not looking great for the Conservatives, their results have gotten worse as time has gone on," he said.
"Nobody expected them to lose this many seats, as they didn’t have that many to start off with."
However, Curtis felt that there wasn’t as much enthusiasm for Keir Starmer as the Labour leader might like, and believed Friday's results indicated a strong likelihood of a hung parliament at the next general election.
“In many target areas outside London, in the North and the Midlands, Labour would like to be further ahead,” he added.
Curtis said what ought to concern Downing Street about Thursday's results is what happened in the South of England, where the Liberal Democrats made dozens of gains in traditional Tory areas.
"It was a spectacularly good night for the Liberal Democrats," he said.
"It’s clear that disaffected Conservative voters feel like they can vote for them, and that puts the Lib Dems in good stead to win quite a few seats in those areas at the next general election".
The same former Cabinet minister agreed, saying they predicted "a number of colleagues who used to be in very safe areas will be asking questions about what's going on".
“In Surrey, Berkshire and in that penumbra of London, it was not a good night at all," they said.
Speaking after the Conservatives lost Somerset Council to the Lib Dems on Thursday afternoon, Conservative MP Marcus Fysh said the parliamentary Tory party needed to have a conversation about whether Johnson "is the right person" to lead them and the country.
"The voters have sent us a message," the MP for Yeovil said, "which I for one have heard loud and clear. We need a radical change of approach on the economy and I don’t think the team we’ve got as currently constituted is capable of delivering that".
Somerset was just one of numerous councils in the traditional Tory South where the Lib Dems either won or made significant gains.
Perhaps ominously for Downing Street, a by-election will soon take place in nearby Devon to replace Neil Parish, who last week quit as the Conservative MP for Tiverton and Honiton after being caught watching porn in the House of Commons. There could also be a by-election in the Somerset constituency Somerton and Frome if David Warbuton, who lost the Conservative whip over allegations of sexual harassment and drug use, ends up standing down.
“It’s quite something that we are assuming the Liberal Democrats have a good chance of picking up the once incredibly safe Conservative seat vacated by Neil Parish," said Curtis.
The collapse of the so-called 'blue wall' isn't the only potential headache for Johnson, though.
Former minister Stephen Hammond, the Conservative MP for Wimbledon, recently told PoliticsHome's podcast The Rundown that a Tory defeat in the upcoming Wakefield by-election may be when restless Conservative backbenchers decide to oust the Prime Minister.
While Labour didn't make huge inroads in 'red wall' areas at Thursday's local elections, it did manage to secure a comfortable victory over the Conservatives in Wakefield.
When parliament returns next week, the Prime Minister will attempt to shift the agenda back to policy when the government unveils its Queen's Speech. There's also speculation that Johnson will attempt to reset his administration – again – by holding a Cabinet reshuffle before the Summer.
But after a poor set of local election results, the spectre of partygate still looming, and with the cost of living crisis starting to bite and expected to get worse, choppy waiters await the Prime Minister.
As one senior government source put it: "If the PM was hoping for decent council results as a defence against any future Met Police fines, etc, then that definitely isn’t there."
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