One of the intriguing aspects of the 2019 general election was the Conservatives winning seats they hadn’t won for nigh on a century.
Labour had held Don Valley and Leigh since 1922. Blyth Valley, Dennis Skinner’s Bolsover and Tony Blair’s Sedgefield — which he held comfortably for all his years in Parliament — all fell.
The early reaction to this seismic shift was that it was a combination of distaste among Labour voters of Jeremy Corbyn and Brexit, given that in every case they had voted to leave in 2016 and had heartily disliked the parliamentary Labour Party’s attitude led by the shadow Brexit secretary — one Sir Kier Starmer no less — which was to oppose Brexit at all costs.
But deeper analysis has shown that voters in these seats had felt for some time that they had been taken for granted by Labour and that they felt more in line with Conservative values despite old generational loyalties.
Giving up on the capital
Boris Johnson, for all his faults, actually represented the kind of toff Tory that did actually empathise with them and didn’t patronise them in the way their Labour MPs and councillors so often did.
So, why is it that this Tory party, capable of winning in Bolsover and Blyth Valley, appears incapable of winning in London? Why is Sadiq Khan, who on any objective analysis is by far the worst of the three mayors London has had so far, enjoying the kind of ratings that make him almost certain of re-election in May?
I believe it is because the Tories have actually given up on London. The only seat Labour won from the Tories in 2019 was Justine Greening’s Putney, not some gritty northern town. Conservative central office appears to have bought into this idea that somehow the nation’s capital is a Labour city.
I remind them that a chap called Johnson won in 2008 when Gordon Brown was still prime minister and then won again in 2012. It is ridiculous to suggest that the Tories cannot win London councils and the mayoralty if they put their minds to it.
Now that Brexit recedes as an issue, it is time the Tories realised that there are many boroughs in London that should be natural Tory territory –boroughs like Croydon, whose Labour council has proved so incompetent it has had to turn to taxpayers for a special bailout.
Havering is under no overall control when it ought to be nailed-on Tory, and Enfield and Harrow, which were Tory for decades, have been allowed to slip away. I could go on but you take my point.
Looking for a class act
And much as I like Tory candidate Shaun Bailey, it is perfectly obvious he has no cut-through with voters and lags Khan by big margins when, of all the incumbent mayors, he is the easiest to call out.
But Bailey has never run a large business or been a minister in a government. He’s a decent, hardworking chap who is enormously likeable but that’s just not going to be enough. Khan, by contrast, is a long-serving former MP and minister. He is a class act even when I fundamentally disagree with him.
The Tories need to start taking London seriously again. In all the talk of ‘levelling up’, there is the fear that this is at the expense of London. That would be insane and yet is not specifically denied.
Greening would have been my choice as a former cabinet minister — a great communicator and exactly the kind of person Khan would find it hard to dismiss in the way he does Bailey.
There are others out there who have run serious businesses, who don’t need the money and who would do it for their city. I tried twice myself. In the words of the one and only Delia Smith: “Let’s be havin’ you!“
Steve Norris is chairman of Soho Estates and Future-Built