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London mad: could Partygate sink the Tories’ Wandsworth flagship? | Local elections

Boris Johnson used to be the king of the capital. As a politician who presented himself as a big city and a social liberal, he gave the Conservatives their first control of the London-wide government in 30 years by winning the 2008 mayoral election.

But now the party is facing one of its toughest election trials in the city, and the prime minister risks revolt from his own backers if the Partygate polls threaten to hit them at the ballot box as well.

In the Tories’ flagship council in Wandsworth, voters are considering whether the party’s headline promise to keep local taxes low is attractive enough during the cost-of-living crisis to prevent them from staying home or giving Labor a chance.

While Labor advanced in the referendum by just a few hundred votes in the last council election, the Conservatives still got the highest number of councilors.

Conservatives work in Wandsworth.
Conservatives work in Wandsworth. Photo: Graeme Robertson / The Guardian

“It does not matter if we make big gains or even gain overall control over a few other areas; if Wandsworth falls, it will be the story of the night, ”admitted a minister who had been campaigning in the area.

Ruth, who lives in Battersea and used to be a Conservative member, said she as a lawyer was deeply dissatisfied with the Prime Minister’s breach of Covid laws.

“I usually vote conservative. But even if it’s led by a man I do not think has integrity, I would not vote for them,” she said.

When approached by a Conservative councilor at her home in south-west London, Ruth spoke clearly about the message she wanted to send.

“I thought that voting conservative at the moment would seem like a support from the national party because it is being reported in the media that if there are bad local election results for Boris, then people can move against him, which is what I wishes to happen. ”

She admitted she was “very pleased with how the local party is acting”, but added: “The leader is such an important issue that you just have to change it.”

Margaret, who lives nearby and works as a teacher, is less preoccupied with Partygate and says she usually votes conservative, but this time she falters. “I just think there’s so much nonsense with the party at the top,” she said. “It has nothing to do with Partygate, it’s just that I do not think he is particularly competent.

“I think he’s a bit of a disappointment. I had high hopes when he came in and I just think he’s really disappeared into the background. You hear nothing from him anymore – other than when he’s made a mistake. ”

Margaret said she would probably abstain because she was not impressed with Keir Starmer’s Labor, adding, “I’m a little disillusioned at the moment.

Lauren, who works for Citizens Advice, said she would normally vote Liberal Democrat and was tempted to vote for the Conservatives locally as it is a Labor-Tory cast. “It’s a challenge in your head to distinguish between the national party,” she said.

Activists hammering the streets have lines ready for shaky voters like Ruth, Margaret and Lauren.

“It’s not Boris on the ballot,” is a common chorus. Just as the argument is that even richer residents are not dependent on Wandsworth’s lower municipal taxes, so can their harder-pressed neighbors.

But it can still be a difficult sale. In a nod to Geoffrey Howe’s criticism of Margaret Thatcher, a council candidate in the Lambeth and Southwark Conservatives WhatsApp group complained that it would be “easier if the national party does not crack our local bats on the fold”.

A Tory MP also moaned privately: “It’s like Downing Street hates Tory councilors and is figuring out how to have as few as possible.”

Sarmila Varatharaj works for Labor.
Labor reminds voters that only a few hundred votes can make all the difference. Photo: Graeme Robertson / The Guardian

Johnson certainly still has some followers in London. When a Conservative canvasser knocked on Peter’s door and asked if he had any concerns about the party nationally, he said he did not and that attention to Covid violations was “a distraction.”

“We are in a proxy war with Russia,” Peter said. “And the Prime Minister is basically leading the free world.”

And there are many pressing local issues affecting residents, ranging from recycling to schools, crime and libraries.

One resident, Antonietta, was desperate for the municipality and police to crack down on motorcyclists who were driving dangerously fast along the sidewalk in front of her house.

“If you do something along the way, you may have my support, otherwise I’ll have to vote for someone else,” she said when asked who she would back up on May 5th.

For Labor, the challenge is to remind voters that only a few hundred votes could turn the council red.

While the number of volunteers offering to help with search has dropped since 2018, when a larger membership under Jeremy Corbyn was mobilized, fewer voters are now said to slam the doors when activists arrive.

“I would say it’s going to be incredibly tight. It still looks like it’s on a knife edge, truly a 50-50 choice,” said Simon Hogg, Labor leader at Wandsworth Council.

He said the Conservative campaign was “just based on the individual issue of municipal taxation, whereas we match that municipal taxation, but we also have ambitious policies on the environment, housing, crime and education”.

Hogg admitted it was “a key question in the election whether Labor can trust your money”, and understood concerns as the Labor-run Croydon council tipped over on the brink of bankruptcy.

But he insisted that Labor had a “serious, ambitious, costly manifesto that we will tax fairly,” and would “use it wisely.” He claimed that the credibility of the Wandsworth Conservatives was declining and that they were no longer running a tight ship.

Hogg’s insistence that the race appears to be on a knife edge is not excessive.

Jonathan Carr-West, executive director of the local government information unit, said that although opinion polls suggested the Conservatives could lose control of the council, “it is certainly close, both in terms of seats and in terms of the majority within some seats. “.

He said: “Given Wandsworth’s prominence as a Conservative flagship, its loss will be seen as a serious blow to the government and will be directly included in the conversation about the Prime Minister’s future.

“At the same time, it would be part of a long-term trend where Labor has tightened its grip on inner London.

“Over the last decade, we have seen an increasing polarization, with the Labor vote concentrated in large cities and university towns and conservative support spread across the rest of the country. Wandsworth and Westminster have resisted this, but margins have narrowed. “

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