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Tories Are Caught In A Tug-Of-War Between National Scandal And Local Issues At The May Elections

Tories Are Caught In A Tug-Of-War Between National Scandal And Local Issues At The May Elections


7 min read

Next week’s local elections loom large for Boris Johnson, with many MPs seeing the vote as a proxy referendum on the Prime Minister's scandal-tattered leadership.

Attempts by many Tory campaigners to pitch their plans for the local area seem to be falling flat as national issues of parties and sexual misconduct are raised repeatedly on the doorstep. 

The Prime Minister’s future could be hanging in the balance, with senior Tory Tobias Ellwood claiming last week that it was a question of “when, not if” a vote of no confidence Johnson will be forced by disgruntled members of the parliamentary party.

Many MPs are reportedly holding back their dismay until after the local elections take place, with some suggesting a large haemorrhaging of seats by the party could cause them to come out against the PM.

The ongoing rumblings of ‘partygate’, questions over Rishi Sunak’s tax affairs, the conviction of a Tory MP for sexual assault, and anger over the government’s response to the cost of living crisis have already seen Boris Johnson’s party take a hit in the polls. Many in the party fear this discontent will be echoed at the ballot box on 5 May. 

When PoliticsHome visited the Labour-controlled council of Bury two weeks ago, the Tory party’s local election pitch appeared to be at risk of being drowned out after months of scandal have damaged their standing nationally.

With all 51 of its council seats up for grabs as a result of boundary changes, voters in Bury will have more chances than most in the country to make their voices heard on both local and national issues. Most other councils only put up a third of seats each year. 

Bury, which sits within Greater Manchester just north of the city, is no stranger to scandal. It gained national attention earlier this year when then-Tory MP, Christian Wakeford, made the seismic decision to defect to the Labour party, citing concerns over Boris Johnson’s leadership in the wake of “partygate”.

The area is also a key battleground in future General Elections, as both of its two MPs sit on wafer thin margins. Bury North’s James Daly won his Commons seat by just 105 votes in 2019, while Bury South’s Christian Wakeford took his by 402 votes.With the Conservatives faltering in the national polls, and no clear party alliance in the area, it is therefore little wonder that both Boris Johnson and Labour leader Keir Starmer have chosen Bury as a place to pitch their local election message in recent weeks.

Launching Labour’s campaign from a pub in Bury earlier this month, Starmer focused on cost of living, insisting that “Britain deserves better” than the “miserable” government response to the cost-of-living crisis.

The Prime Minister met with Bury FC fans at the town’s Gigg Lane ground on Monday, but his plan to promote the government’s football reform plans and his levelling up agenda for the region was overshadowed by allegations that a Tory MP had issued a sexist briefing about deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner to a Sunday newspaper, and ongoing questions about his involvement in lockdown-breaking parties.

Johnson was joined on his visit by Bury North MP James Daly, who recently told PoliticsHome he was hopeful that the national row over partygate wouldn’t distract people from the things that matter to the local area. 

Speaking during a walk around the town centre, he proudly pointed to several recent injections of cash the town has had thanks to fresh funding from the central government.Construction is ongoing on a new STEM centre for the town’s Bury College, which recently got institute of technology status. There are plans to revamp the town’s world famous food market to ensure it remains a popular tourist attraction. Fresh investment has also been poured into Giggs Lane, the fifth oldest football stadium in the country.

“This idea of levelling up is actually happening here in the northern town, I’ve pointed to £200 million pounds of investment just in a five minute walk,” Daly told PoliticsHome.

“As the Conservative MP, I'm reliant on the delivery pool of the local authority to assist in what we've been fighting for and getting the money for. To say these elections are hugely important for this town, is the understatement of the century.”

Daly insists that developments in the town prove that his party is “delivering” for places like Bury, and dismisses suggestions local concerns could get drowned out by national debates over partygate and Rishi Sunak’s tax affairs. 

“For some people, the national picture may well be important. But I'm hoping that, after years of an incompetent Labour council in Bury, that this opportunity in an all out election to make your vote count is going to be too tempting for people.”

But Chris Curtis, head of political polling at Opinium, said it would be hard for local campaigners to drown out the national dialogue by focusing on local issues.

“Generally, the national political scene is the most important thing,” he told PoliticsHome 

“A good local campaign around good local issues can mitigate against national damage. And, inevitably, it's going to still be a bit of both. 

“But, ultimately, people are going to trust the Conservatives less to do their bins locally, if they've lost faith in the party nationally as well.”

Christian Wakeford, the now-Labour MP for Bury South hopes to capitalise on this view on the doorstep. He believes it’s the national issues that will persuade local election voters, whether it’s parties at Number 10 or the government’s response to the cost of living crisis.

“People were feeling the pinch a couple of months ago, and that was before the tax increase we all had, and before the fuel price and everything else was going up as well,” he told PoliticsHome over coffee in his Bury South constituency.

“Even just from my own inbox, not just from knocking on doors, there are a lot of people who are really scared at the moment.”

He also dismissed Daly’s criticism of the Labour-run council, insisting their failings were part of a wider picture of local government underfunding.

“The money that has been granted by the government, it's only been possible because the bids that the Council were putting in, but all politics is local, if he's trying to tell me about the national issues of cost of living aren't coming up on a single doorstep — well, that’s not true,” Wakeford explained.

“The council has had challenges… there's no hiding from that. But I think what we have seen is core funding being cut drastically over the last 10 years, and that will have an impact on services.

“To just point the finger and say it's your Labour councillors. I don't think that's fair. This is national pressure on a local scale.”Out on the doorstep with Labour campaigners in Bury, national issues like partygate came up repeatedly alongside local issues like fly-tipping and parking. 

“I'm done with [the Conservative government], completely done with them,” one woman, who did not wish to be named, said. She expressed frustration over reports of lockdown parties in Downing Street, some of which the Prime Minister is believed to have attended, while most people in the country were observing strict Covid rules. 

“What really hurt me — is that people died and they didn’t have families with them, and [Boris Johnson] was partying. That completely turned me. I’m done,” she explained. 

Climate change was also brought up, with one resident expressing concern about the government's plans to build new nuclear power plants, a topic which has risen to prominence as the government seeks to diversify energy supplies to reduce reliance on Russian gas. 

Labour campaigners were quick to exploit concerns, telling wavering locals that they could use their three votes in the upcoming election to “send a message” to the government, while also ensuring Labour could continue their work in the council. 

Not everyone was convinced by Labour’s pitch, however. One undecided voter said that opposition parties had a habit of “promising the world” before they were in power.


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