A very bad night for the Tories

The blame game begins as the Tories lose hundreds of seats.

"A tough night" was what Conservative chairman Sayeeda Warsi predicted for her party. And so it proved. With 98 of 181 councils declared, the Tories have lost 278 seats, while Labour has gained 461 and is on course to win hundreds more - its best local election result since 1997. The results are equivalent to Labour having 39 per cent of the national vote, with the Tories on 31 per cent and the Lib Dems on 16 per cent, figures that, if replicated at a general election, would see Ed Miliband comfortably ensconced in Downing Street. To the key question of the night - has Labour done well enough? - the answer is yes. There was disappointment in Bradford, where George Galloway's Respect won five seats, including one from its Labour leader, and more could follow in Glasgow, where the SNP is hoping to win overall control of the council. But the results will, for now, settle the doubts over Miliband's leadership.

Already, Conservative MPs have rushed to offer their own idiosyncratic explanations for the Tories' defeat. Gerald Howarth, a defence minister, has blamed David Cameron's support for gay marriage, Bernard Jenkin has said House of Lords reform needs to go, Martin Vickers has cited the decision to cut the 50p tax rate (rather than fuel duty), while Gary Streeter, a noted moderate, has said Cameron needs to be tougher on crime to halt the Ukip surge. Expect the blame game to continue across the weekend.

In many ways, however, the real story of the night was the disastrously low turnout. At just 32 per cent, it was the lowest figure since 2000, confirming the alienation many voters feel from the entire political class. The anti-politics mood is one explanation for the resounding rejection of directly-elected city mayors. The voters simply don't want more politicians. Manchester, Nottingham and Coventry have all voted against having a mayor, while Birmingham appears to have done the same. Cameron's call for "a Boris in every city" has fallen on deaf ears.

The aforementioned Boris should provide the Tories with something to celebrate when the London mayoral election results are announced this evening but that won't stop Conservative MPs using this as an opportunity to air the greivances that have mounted over the last few weeks. In today's Times (£), ConservativeHome editor Tim Montgomerie suggests the party could be rediscovering its taste for regicide. Unless Cameron finds an "election game-changer", he writes, "the party might very reluctantly reach for the blond-coloured nuclear button". Boris's re-election will be seen as proof that Conservatives can win if they refuse to compromise and make an unashamedly right-of-centre pitch. The next 48 hours could be very uncomfortable for Cameron.

Cameron's party has lost hundreds of seats. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

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