Could Boris save the Tories?

If the London mayor is unseated this week, it could make things even worse for the Conservatives.

It has been a bad month for the Conservative Party. After a solid four weeks of negative headlines, the party is now going into Thursday’s local elections at an eight-year low of 29 per cent in the opinion polls.

Appearing on the Andrew Marr Show yesterday, Cameron conceded that the last few weeks have been "difficult". They certainly have, with controversies over the Budget, the petrol panic, revelations about the close relationships between ministers and the Murdochs, and to cap it all off, the country falling back into recession.

Against this backdrop, voters on Thursday will elect local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales. The Conservatives are expected to lose up to 350 council seats, while the Liberal Democrats are expected to lose around half of their 650 seats.

With just three days to go til the polls open, Labour is planning a double-pronged attack on both the economy and ministerial relationships with News International. Cameron has been asked (by Labour) to appear in front of the Commons today to explain why he has not ordered an investigation into whether the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt breached the ministerial code. If Hunt is sacked, Cameron will undoubtedly be under pressure to explain his own relationship with News Corp.  Meanwhile, the Labour leader Ed Miliband will focus on the economy, giving a question and answer session today.

Clearly, there is fertile ground here for the opposition. While Conservative strategists are hoping that voter’s persistent lack of faith in Labour on the economy will see them through, things are looking shaky. In the Telegraph today, Benedict Brogan asks whether people are losing their trust in Cameron, whose previously consistent personal ratings have dropped:

It's BOTD [benefit of the doubt] that's got Downing Street deeply worried. They fear, with justification, that Dave is no longer getting the BOTD, either at Westminster or beyond.

So what would turn things around? Conservative officials are placing their hopes on a win by Boris Johnson in the London mayoral election. Although the London race is so personality dominated that it almost seems separate from party politics, it is without doubt the most high profile election taking place this week. It would stem the flow of bad news and give the party faithful something to celebrate.

Perhaps more importantly, if Boris loses, many would blame it on the Tory party top command and the mess of the last month. This would be compounded by the fact that his rival, Labour's Ken Livingstone, has failed to garner much enthusiasm. Such an outcome could make things considerably worse, which at the moment, Cameron simply can’t afford.

Boris Johnson. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.