The most striking aspect of the local elections is what didn’t happen: the Tories were defeated in London, Scotland and elsewhere but did not suffer the kind of catastrophic meltdown that would have finished off the Prime Minister and shifted the national story.
No word-mincing: these were rubbish results for the Tories. There are plenty of bruised and resentful Conservatives all over the country, quietly livid with Boris Johnson, who think it’s time for a change. But he is a big object and only a local electoral avalanche would have knocked him over. There has been rumbling. Many people stayed in their kitchens and chose not to vote. But… no avalanche.
Next question: why not? After all, the can’t-pay-our-bills economic crisis is widely spread and intensifying and partygate is still relatively fresh in people’s minds. Against this government at this time, the opposition parties must surely, in private, have expected a more dramatic night.
My first conclusion is that Johnson is still seen among poorer and middle-class northern and Midlands English voters as their own Brexit Prime Minister. They may be disappointed with his behaviour but, somehow, that emotional connection is still there.
Indeed, we see the geographical fractures across the country exposed by the 2019 general election widening still further. Does any party still have a plausible claim to an all-Britain hegemonic following? Scotland and London continue their anti-Conservative journeys, in both cases with Brexit a big part of the story. The Blue Wall of southern and western English constituencies now looks very soft to a Liberal Democrat, and in some places Green, challenge. We are becoming, slowly and messily, a political patchwork country. Now proximity seems to matter almost as much as class.
This is, longer-term, more serious for our common future than any immediate political effect, including on Johnson’s position. Yes, the letters may go in against him, and we may yet see a parliamentary challenge, but MPs who have hesitated so often may find hesitation has become a habit they can’t kick.
Johnson still has cards to play. He will talk a lot about the Red Wall holding firm (ish), and his aides will mutter knowingly about the coming reshuffle. I think the three by-elections coming up will be more serious for him than these mixed and patchy results. I even wonder whether, if I was Johnson, I wouldn’t welcome a stuttering parliamentary challenge now, on the back of moderate local losses, rather than later.
Alongside this, there is no great evidence, from these results, of popular warmth towards Keir Starmer, nor of a widespread belief that he has an economic answer to the country’s immediate economic and social pain.
On the “warmth” problem, there’s not much to be done. Starmer’s a thoroughly decent, punctilious and service-driven man, of the kind we need more of in public life. But he has nothing like the charismatic, verbal and emotional skills of his opponent. These are — you may think — somehow tawdrier virtues, if they are even virtues at all. But in the roiling, raucous music hall of democratic politics they surely matter. There it is. Ah, well.
Labour could, however, do something about their big political sell. Not getting over a coherent, sizable and believable alternative after the failure of Rishi Sunak’s Spring Statement is itself a pretty sizable political failure. I keep being told that it’s “too early”, that Labour shouldn’t “set out its stall” so far ahead of a general election; that this opens the party to Tory counterattack.
This is quite wrong. Parties in opposition impress themselves on the public imagination long before an actual election campaign begins. Tony Blair understood this in the mid-1990s. It would be a grave error for Starmer’s Labour not to be clearer about offering Britain the real policy choice it needs. If the local results tell us anything, it’s that criticising government policy shortfalls and pointing out egregious misbehaviour isn’t enough to move mountains. You need mental excitement. You need what are technically called oomph, gumption and zest.
Nobody comes out gloriously from these results. For the Tories, the dilemma about what to do with their leader becomes harder, not easier. For Labour, the suspicion that vital policy graft and fresh ideas are lacking is starting to look irresistible. The second half of this parliament is going to be tougher, and also even more interesting, than the first.