A key question for today’s local elections is whether Boris Johnson can hold together the electoral coalition that delivered him victory in the general election of 2019. Under the banner of “Get Brexit Done”, Johnson combined affluent, traditional Tory seats with new ones in Labour’s Red Wall to win an 80-seat majority. With the unifying issue of Brexit now receding into the background, the southern part of that equation looks under threat.
Look at the Chesham and Amersham by-election in June 2021 when the Liberal Democrats overcame a 16,000 Conservative majority. Or the North Shropshire by-election in December when the Lib Dems again captured a Tory seat (overturning a majority of 22,949). Johnson’s law-breaking behaviour and his failure to arrest the cost-of-living crisis has left the Tories trailing Labour in the polls.
It seems unlikely that the former Conservative minister Nick Boles, who presided over austerity as a close acolyte of David Cameron, would be irked by the government’s decision not to extend more help to the poorest. Nonetheless, Boles, who was the Tory MP for Grantham and Stanford from 2010 to 2019, has revealed that he voted Labour this morning. “First time I’ve voted Labour since an equally glorious May morning in 1997,” he tweeted.
His move will add to the woes at CCHQ – not least because it seems part of a broader trend. As my colleague Ben Walker has observed: “at the start of January, when Labour led by nine points, around 3 to 5 per cent of those who voted Conservative in 2019 were telling YouGov they’d vote Labour. Now that figure is 9 to 10 per cent.”
The defection of traditional Tories to Labour is part of an emerging anti-Johnson electoral coalition (which includes disillusioned Red Wall voters and other former Tory ministers such as Rory Stewart and NS columnist David Gauke), as we set out in this week’s leader. In many areas, tactical voting could play a bigger role than at any election since 1997 (the Lib Dems are in second place in 78 Tory seats).
The results of today’s election are not yet in. But Boles’s decision to desert the Tories is a warning to Johnson that his election-winning coalition may be about to crumble.