No 10 "underwhelmed" by Boris's campaign

Downing Street concerned that the London mayor's re-election campaign lacks direction.

For months, the conventional wisdom was that the London mayoral race is already called for the Tories. But the polls tell a different story. Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson are neck and neck, in what is shaping up to be London's closest mayoral contest since devolved government was reintroduced in the capital.

Boris may have regained the lead, but YouGov puts only two points between them, and according to reports today, Tory top command is starting to worry.

Alice Thompson writes in the Times (£):

Downing Street is worried. When the mayor came in with his Australian election strategist Lynton Crosby last week, they thought their plans were "underwhelming" and lacked a simple "retail offer" for voters. Boris might irritate the Prime Minister but the Conservatives need him to stay in City Hall. They are even prepared to consider Boris Island, his plan for a new airport, if it helps his cause.

The fundamental problem appears to be that his campaign lacks direction. According to Thompson's report, internal Tory polling shows that voters can't see what Boris has done. Ken has a clear "retail offer": cutting fares and bashing bankers. Boris's campaign, meanwhile, lacks direction, while his association with the City continues to be a problem.

He has always been a politician who relies on personality. Last month my colleague Rafael Behr argued that Boris's incumbency might be hurting this trump card:

Last time around, Boris was the challenger, which suited his self-image as a bit of a maverick, an eccentric, a TV personality and so, crucially, not a typical Tory. Some of that image remains, but the mantle of office has necessarily imposed a degree of discipline on the mayor. He still gets away with more mannered dishevelment than is usual for someone in his position, but there is an extent to which his pre-election persona has been absorbed into a more conventional political identity. Or, to put it in cruder terms, he is becoming more Tory than Boris.

Thompson quotes an aide saying that "Boris needs a fright" and that a close race will be good for him. Which way the vote goes on 3 May depends on many factors, not least voter turnout, but there is certainly a lot at more at stake than the cartoon rivalry between two big personalities. A win for Ken -- widely seen as past his political prime -- would be a serious mid-term shock for the Tories. It is no surprise that Downing Street is rearing into action.

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

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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

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