Elections 2016: Why Conservative strategists may be celebrating Labour successes

Symbolic Tory triumps north of the border are not the only source of satisfaction for those plotting the party's future 

Charlie Cooper
Whitehall Correspondent
Friday 06 May 2016 12:13
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Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson waves after winning the  Edinburgh Central seat
Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson waves after winning the Edinburgh Central seat

The Conservative party has scored major victories at the ballot box, winning new seats on English councils despite internal party divisions over the EU referendum and public anger over cuts, and securing second place in Scottish Parliament elections for the first time.

David Cameron said Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson had won “an historic result” for the party in Scotland, where it had trailed well behind Labour since the Thatcher-era.

And with 80 of 124 English councils declared, the Tories had gained 10 seats and held on to every council under their control. By contrast, Labour have lost 26 seats, and also lost overall control of Dudley Council.

The results for Labour in England were, however, better than expected, and despite the humiliation of sinking to third place in Scotland, the party is expected to win the London mayoralty.

The mixed outcome makes an imminent challenge to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership unlikely – a result which will be welcomed by many Tory strategists, who doubt Mr Corbyn’s chances of leading Labour to a general election victory in 2020.

The Conservative leadership will be relieved that - despite a bruising few months for the party, with deep divisions over the EU referendum, the resignation of Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith over cuts to disability benefits and a damaging dispute with junior doctors – councillors avoided the kind of mid-term wipe-out experienced by governing parties in the past.

Chancellor George Osborne paid tribute to Tory councillors.

“What an achievement to be winning seats after six years in power,” he said.

“Conservatives make progress when we deliver as a team: more jobs, lower taxes, a national living wage and the promised EU referendum.”

The Prime Minister, meanwhile, tweeted his congratulations to Ms Davidson, praising her as “a leader who will stand up to the SNP and give Scotland strong opposition”.

According to analysis by the BBC, the party’s vote share in England was down by around four per cent on 2012, the last time these seats were contested.

There will also be disappointment that Labour were able to retain control of a number of key battleground councils in the south of England, including Southampton, Crawley, and Hastings.

The party also lost three seats in the Welsh Assembly elections, slipping to nine assembly members with 56 of the 60 seats declared.

And while the overall gains and the result in Scotland will be an encouragement to Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne, they still face a major threat to their leadership if Britain votes for Brexit in June, with MPs and party activists likely to back a Eurosceptic leadership challenger.

The party also faces recriminations over Zac Goldsmith’s campaign for the London mayoralty, which was criticised for focusing on attempts to link Labour’s candidate, and likely victor, Sadiq Khan, to Islamist extremists.

A senior London Conservative called Mr Goldsmith’s campaign “outrageous”. Andrew Boff, the Conservative group leader on the Greater London Assembly, told BBC’s Newsnight the campaign had “done real damage” and “blown up bridges” between the Tory party and the Muslim community.

“I don’t think it was a dog whistle [campaign] because you can’t hear a dog whistle,” he said.

“Everybody could hear this. It was effectively saying that people of conservative religious views are not to be trusted and you should not share a platform with them. That’s outrageous."

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