Saturday, May 05, 2012

Johnson the real winner once again

You can look at yesterday's local election results purely in terms of the 400 or so council seats lost by the Conservatives and the 800-plus gained by Labour.

You can look at them in terms of national share of the vote, with Labour opening up a seven-point lead over the Tories that if repeated in a general election would put Ed Miliband comfortably in Number 10.

You can look at them in terms of the almost wholesale rejection of the government's plans for a network of powerfully elected mayors in our major cities, not least in Newcastle where the idea was rejected by a majority of almost 2-1.

But whichever way you choose to look at them, it's already pretty clear that Thursday was a very bad night for the Coalition.

It was always likely that the Tories would try to get us to look at the results through the prism of their star performer Boris Johnson's ultimately successful re-election campaign for the London Mayoralty.

But this really won't wash.  Johnson is a political one-off, and so, in a different sense, is his Labour opponent Ken Livingstone, who found himself deserted in this election by a significant element within his own party.

Although in the short-term Mr Johnson's narrow win provides the Conservatives with a convenient fig-leaf for their wider failure up and down the land, in the longer-term his victory is a disaster for David Cameron.

Once again, Boris has proved that he is the proven winner in the Tory ranks, in marked contrast to a leader who couldn't even score an outright election win against the exhausted volcano that was Gordon Brown in 2010.

In one sense yesterday's results were entirely predictable given the catalogue of disasters that the government has visited upon itself lately.

Mr Cameron will hope he can draw a line under it all in time-honoured fashion, with a relaunch of the Coalition - or as some are calling it, a renewal of vows – likely to come as early as the next fortnight.

This will be followed by a wide-ranging summer reshuffle that could see Ken Clarke and Andrew Lansley thanked for their service and replaced by younger, more media-savvy operators such as Grant Shapps and Chris Grayling.

But even this poses difficulties for Mr Cameron, with the long-planned promotion of Jeremy Hunt having to be put on hold pending his appearance at the Leveson Inquiry into press standards.

For my part, I wonder whether something deeper than mere mid-term blues is at work here - whether a public that was initially disposed to give the Coalition the benefit of the doubt has now started to do the opposite.

It is surely significant that, while 12 months ago the Tory vote held up as the Lib Dems bore the brunt of voters' anger over the austerity measures, this time round they were both punished equally.

Equally ominous for the Conservatives is the rise and rise of the UK Independence Party, which took 13pc of the national vote in a set of elections where it traditionally makes little impact.

If UKIP can start taking as many votes off the Conservatives in a general election, it might even one day force them to embrace the merits of proportional representation

Mr Miliband, though, will refuse to get carried away by any of this.

Six months ago I thought the public had by and large made up its mind about him, but maybe they are taking another look and liking what they see.

The biggest encouragement for the Labour leader is the fact that the party appears to be on the march beyond its traditional strongholds.

Not only is it winning back bellweather Midlands cities like Derby and Birmingham that will be crucial to its general election chances, but also more southerly councils such as Harlow, Plymouth and Great Yarmouth.

As for the North-East, having rejected regional government in 2004 it has now rejected the nearest thing to it, a Newcastle city region led by a powerful, Boris-style elected mayor.

While I am no great fan of presidential-style politics, it is hard to see how the region can compete effectively for its share of the national cake without such powerful advocates.

Fear of change, the desire to stick to the devil you know, remains a powerful factor in determining political outcomes, and Thursday’s mayoral referendum was no exception.

And if there is a crumb of comfort anywhere for Mr Cameron in yesterday’s results, it may well be in that.
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