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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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