London galling: could Partygate sink the Tories’ Wandsworth flagship? | Local elections

Boris Johnson used to be king of the capital. As a politician who presented himself as metropolitan and socially liberal, he gifted the Conservatives their first control of London-wide government for 30 years by winning the mayoralty in 2008.

But now the party is facing one of its toughest electoral tests in the city, and the prime minister risks insurrection from his own backbenchers if the Partygate investigations threaten to hit them at the ballot box too.

In the Tories’ flagship council of Wandsworth, voters are mulling whether the party’s headline pledge to keep council tax low is attractive enough during the cost of living crisis to keep them from staying at home or giving Labour a chance.

While Labour inched ahead in the popular vote by just a few hundred votes at the last council elections, the Conservatives still clinched the highest number of councillors.

Conservatives canvassing in Wandsworth.
Conservatives canvassing in Wandsworth. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

“It doesn’t matter if we make great gains or even win overall control of a few other areas; if Wandsworth falls, that will be the narrative of the night,” admitted a minister who had been out campaigning in the area.

Ruth, who lives in Battersea and used to be a Conservative member, said that as a barrister, she was deeply unhappy with the prime minister’s breach of Covid laws.

“I usually would vote Conservative. But while it’s led by a man I don’t consider has integrity, I wouldn’t vote for them,” she said.

Speaking as she was canvassed by a Conservative councillor at her home in south-west London, Ruth spoke plainly about the message she wanted to send.

“I thought voting Conservative at the moment would seem an endorsement of the national party because it is being reported in the media that if there are bad local election results for Boris, then people may move against him, which is what I want to happen.”

She admitted she was “very pleased with how the local party is acting”, but added: “The leader is such an important issue that you’ve just got to change that.”

Margaret, who lives nearby and works as a teacher, is less concerned with Partygate and says she normally votes Conservative, but this time she is wavering. “I just think there’s so much nonsense with the party at the top,” she said. “It’s nothing to do with Partygate, it’s just that I don’t think he’s very competent.

“I think he’s a bit of a disappointment. I had good hopes when he came in and I just think he’s really disappeared into the background. You hear nothing from him any more – other than when he’s made a mistake.”

Margaret said she would probably abstain because she was unimpressed by Keir Starmer’s Labour, and added: “I’m a little bit disillusioned at the moment.”

Lauren, who works for Citizens Advice, said she would normally vote Liberal Democrat and was tempted to vote for the Conservatives locally since it is a Labour-Tory toss-up. “It’s a challenge in your head to distinguish between the national party,” she said.

Activists pounding the streets have lines at the ready for wavering voters such as Ruth, Margaret and Lauren.

“It’s not Boris on the ballot paper,” is a common refrain. As is the argument that even if wealthier residents do not rely on Wandsworth’s lower council tax, their harder-pressed neighbours might.

But it can still be a tough sell. In a nod to Geoffrey Howe’s criticism of Margaret Thatcher, one council candidate in the Lambeth and Southwark Conservatives WhatsApp group complained it would be “easier if the national party doesn’t break our local bats at the crease”.

A Tory MP also privately moaned: “It’s like Downing Street hate Tory councillors and are figuring out how to have as few as possible.”

Sarmila Varatharaj canvassing for Labour.
Labour is reminding voters that only a few hundred votes could make all the difference. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Johnson certainly still has some supporters in London. When a Conservative canvasser knocked on Peter’s door and asked if he had any concerns about the party nationally, he said he did not and that the attention given to Covid rule-breaking was “a distraction”.

“We’re in a proxy war with Russia,” Peter said. “And the prime minister’s essentially leading the free world.”

And there are many pressing local issues that affect residents, from recycling to schools, crime and libraries.

One resident, Antonietta, was desperate for the council and the police to crack down on motorcyclists driving dangerously fast along the pavement in front of her house.

“If you do something about the road, you might have my support, otherwise, I’ll have to vote for somebody else,” she said when asked who she would back on 5 May.

For Labour, the challenge is to remind voters that only a few hundred votes could turn the council red.

While the number of volunteers offering to help with canvassing has plummeted since 2018 when a larger membership under Jeremy Corbyn was mobilised, fewer voters are now said to slam doors shut when activists arrive.

“I’d say it’s going to be incredibly tight. It still looks like it’s on a knife-edge, genuinely a 50-50 election,” said Simon Hogg, Labour’s leader on Wandsworth council.

He said the Conservative campaign was “just based around that single issue of council tax, whereas we’re matching that council tax, but we’re also having ambitious policies on the environment, on housing, on crime and on education as well”.

Hogg admitted it was “a key issue in the election, whether Labour can be trusted with your money”, and understood concerns given Labour-run Croydon council was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.

But he insisted Labour had a “serious, ambitious, costed manifesto, that we’re going to tax fairly”, and would “spend wisely”. He claimed the credibility of the Wandsworth Conservatives was dropping and that they no longer ran a tight ship.

Hogg’s insistence the race appears to be on a knife-edge is not hyperbole.

Jonathan Carr-West, the chief executive of the Local Government Information Unit, said that while polls suggested the Conservatives could lose control of the council, “it’s certainly close, both in terms of seats and in terms of the majorities within some seats”.

He said: “Given Wandsworth’s prominence as a Conservative flagship, its loss would be seen as a serious blow to the government and will feed directly into the conversation about the prime minister’s future.

“At the same time, it would be part of a longer-term trend in which Labour has tightened its grip on inner London.

“Over the last decade, we have seen an increasing polarisation, with the Labour vote concentrated in large cities and university towns and Conservative support spread across the rest of the country. Wandsworth and Westminster have resisted this but the margins have been getting narrower.”

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