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Can anything interrupt the placid drift of UK politics?

We are in a holding pattern: Tory support is faltering but Labour is listlessly waiting for a way back into power.

By Philip Collins

The prevailing mood of British politics is drift. There is a sense of waiting, allowing the future to arrive, rather than making it so. The local elections yesterday (5 May) appear, at an early stage with plenty of places still to declare, to provide no break, no wave of the future to interrupt the drift. Conservative MPs fooled themselves that they were waiting for the May elections to give them a pretext to change the Prime Minister. Labour MPs are waiting for that resolution too, in the hope that simply being not the Boris Johnson party will be enough. Everyone is waiting for something to turn up.

The early indications are that the geographical realignment of British politics is continuing. Labour has done remarkably well in London — winning the old Tory flagship councils of Wandsworth and Westminster — but nothing like as well in the rest of the country. A lot of once committed Labour voters broke with the party over Brexit and they are not yet coming back in droves. They do seem to be breaking for the Liberal Democrats, though, which suggests that Brexit as such might be losing its potency. The Liberal Democrats may be in the early stages of resuming their habitual position as a repository for people who cannot abide either of the other two parties.

Though voters might not yet be drifting towards Labour in any great number, they may well be drifting away from the Conservatives and that might, in a tight contest, be hugely significant. Drift can have dramatic consequences. Inaction can be exciting when the numbers come in. In 600 wards in which the BBC has already gathered detailed data, the Tory vote is down by 4 percentage points form 2018, when those seats were last contested. That is enough to turn a lot of the Red Wall back to Labour at a parliamentary election. Carlisle, Copeland, Great Grimsby, Hartlepool, Leigh, Lincoln, Thurrock, West Bromwich East, two Wolverhampton seats and Workington would all come back to Labour at this rate. James Johnson, Theresa May’s former pollster, made the critical point: if Labour is doing as well as it did in 2018 then it is doing better than it did in 2019.

Projected to national level, these numbers clearly put the Conservatives on course to win fewer seats than Labour. Which would, of course, be the end of the road for the Tory party. Boris Johnson’s party is so loathed by all the others that, unless he wins an overall majority, there is no prospect of his administration surviving. Only Labour can govern as a minority and the underwhelming results of these local elections suggest that is still the most likely outcome. Ever since Keir Starmer established himself as a viable prime minister — which he did quite early in his leadership — a minority Labour government has looked a good bet. It still is.

So what can interrupt the drift? On the Conservative side, MPs could act against Boris Johnson, though that looks unlikely. Maybe seriously bad economic news will concentrate their minds and they will take the sensible course and go into the next election led by Jeremy Hunt. For Labour, the question is whether holding steady will be enough. If the ambition is to get into government, it may well be. If the ambition is to achieve anything — which would require a mandate — it probably won’t. These local elections mark the end of a period of abeyance. It is time for somebody to do something. 

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