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.

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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.