London party

Can the Tories keep their flagship London council?

Wandsworth Council in south-west London has been in Conservative Party hands for 44 years, delivering services at bargain prices. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher loved local authority; Boris Johnson’s party could lose him.

The current Prime Minister, who once seemed to have a magic touch in the British capital, is now seen by some as a liability. His support for Brexit has severed his bond with many Londoners, 60% of whom voted to remain in the EU in the 2016 referendum. The partygate scandal is further eroding Conservative support at the door.

If the Tories lose control of their flagship Wandsworth council in local elections on May 5, the result will come to symbolize how Johnson, who was twice elected mayor of London between 2008 and 2016, has lost influence in the capital .

In the largely affluent suburbs that make up the borough, places like Putney, Battersea and Tooting, the electoral situation was described by one Tory official as ‘very bad’.

Labor officials insist it is expectation management and it would be a shock if Sir Keir Starmer’s party were to overthrow the once impregnable Tory rule in Wandsworth.

Others disagree. “Wandsworth seems difficult for conservatives to remember,” said Sir John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde. “They only need to lose three seats to lose control of the council.”

Margaret Thatcher gives an update on the hustings in Putney in 1979. The former British Prime Minister would have loved Wandsworth’s advice © Central Press/Hulton/Getty Images

Conservative election posters in Wandsworth are scarce ahead of Thursday’s vote. Those spotted in windows along the elegant terraced streets proclaim their support for “local conservatives”, with their promise to cut municipal tax bills.

In an apparent new attempt to steer Wandsworth Conservative council candidates away from Johnson’s National Conservative Party, the posters are printed on a turquoise background – instead of the traditional dark blue.

It wasn’t like this before. When Johnson defied the odds and won the mayoralty of London, his brand of liberal, pro-immigration and pro-City of London toryism was a huge electoral draw.

But his support for Brexit was anathema in a predominantly pro-EU internationalist city, where in some inner city areas such as Lambeth and Hackney, support for Remain has reached nearly 80%.

And Johnson’s ‘leveling up’ agenda to reduce regional inequality in the UK – with a focus on the so-called Red Wall seats in the Midlands and North of England, which the Tories took on Labor in the 2019 general election – left some Londoners feeling neglected. Others feel culturally distant from the modern conservative party.

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While the prime minister’s tough rhetoric on issues such as immigration may sound good in many parts of the UK, it is very different from his approach when he became mayor of London in 2008.

At the time, Johnson had launched a review of the feasibility of granting amnesty to around 400,000 immigrants living illegally in London; now the Prime Minister wants to send migrants to Rwanda.

“It was a different Boris Johnson then,” said Tony Travers, a professor specializing in London politics at the London School of Economics, adding that the prime minister had previously tailored his message to a young, diverse and internationally connected population. .

“Then he was the pro-immigration, liberal version of Boris Johnson, ever expanding the city.” Johnson’s support for Brexit has appalled the Square Mile, which has lobbied relentlessly to stay.

Travers said that until 1997 London generally voted like the rest of Britain, but since then it had followed the same “progressive urban” trajectory as cities like Paris and New York.

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Inner London, the stronghold of leftists including former Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn and his supporter Diane Abbott, has become increasingly dominated by the opposition party. “There is a socialist, pinko, hypocritical champagne class in London that dominates the institutions,” said an ally of Johnson.

Indeed, Labor flourished in London in 2018 under Corbyn’s leadership – the last time Wandsworth and London’s other 31 borough councils held elections – making it harder for the opposition party to make big gains this time.

So far the Tories have held on in the wealthier central boroughs of Wandsworth, Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea and some councils in London’s ‘doughnut’ outer ring – local authorities such as Bexley and Barnet.

The Tories fear losing Barnet, whose large Jewish community has turned against Corbyn over Labour’s alleged tolerance of anti-Semitism under his leadership, as well as Wandsworth and Westminster on May 5. Travers thinks Kensington, Chelsea and Bexley are “impossible to lose”.

For some Wandsworth residents, weeks of controversy over Covid lockdown breaking parties in Downing Street have permanently scarred their perception of Johnson and the Tories.

“Partygate has gone on too long,” businesswoman Ali Reed told Tooting. “If he just held his hands up and . . . said “I made a mistake”, he may have gotten some support, but that’s the fact that they lied, lied, lied.

Ali Reed, a businesswoman in Tooting

Ali Reed, a Tooting businesswoman, said: ‘Partygate has gone on too long’ © Charlie Bibby/FT

London’s local Tories are fighting for a track record of good city hall management and low council tax.

Kim Caddy, Conservative Deputy Leader of Wandsworth Council, said: ‘On the doorstep, the cost of living comes up regularly. We said we would reduce council tax by 1%.

She added that while the partygate matter had come up on the doorstep, “more often than not the conversation ends up turning to how the area is run and what the services are like.”

Simon Hogg, Labor leader of Wandsworth Council, claimed local Tory voters were turning against Johnson.

“It’s not their Conservative party anymore,” he said, adding that many voters were viscerally angry that they made sacrifices during the Covid shutdowns when Johnson broke the rules.

Johnson’s allies insist the prime minister has not fundamentally changed and remains a ‘one nation curator’ who believes in controlled immigration.

But antipathy towards Johnson among Londoners, who are generally younger and better educated than the national average, is a serious electoral problem for the Tories and could worsen.

Travers highlighted how many inner-city Londoners were moving to the outer boroughs and taking their metropolitan Labor voting habits with them. Others leave the capital altogether, creating a “London effect” in the south-east of England.

A former minister said: “Londonism is on the rise. Decreasing accessibility means those who would be in the capital have been evicted and are moving off the M25.

“Their geography may have changed, but their values ​​and voting habits have not. We are losing the capital and parts of the south and that is not sustainable.

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This phenomenon is already visible in towns as far away as Worthing on the Sussex coast, home to many exiled Londoners and where Labor is making progress. The Liberal Democrats and Greens are also chipping away at the Tory vote in wealthy parts of the southeast.

For this reason, what happens in Wandsworth will resonate far beyond the borough.

Johnson hopes the Tories will make gains in red wall areas such as Sunderland and Newcastle-under-Lyme on Thursday, offsetting possible council losses in London.

But a Conservative election strategy that cancels out large parts of London, the country’s economic and cultural heart, and relies on continued support from former Labor voters in the north, may prove risky.