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
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496