Saturday, 3 May 2008

Is this where the next Conservative decline starts ?

This may seem strange given last Thursday's local election results culminating in the triumph of Boris Johnson in the London Mayoral election but I think this is the high point of Conservative success at local level.

This doesn't mean the Conservatives can't or won't win the next General Election (they probably will though a cautionary note remains that the Conservatives have not won a substantial election with a turnout of more than 50% since 1992) - the implosion of Gordon Brown and Labour will probably gift it to David Cameron and while up to a couple of weeks ago I thought a majority of 40 the upper limit of Conservative prospects, the possibility of a landslide can no longer be discounted.

For the Liberal Democrats, London was plain bad but overall a small net gain of councils and Councillors (and a number of good results against the Tories) proved me and some of the other pessimists wrong. Unlike Sir Menzies Campbell, Nick Clegg has survived his first big test and the Party remains "in the game".

Back to the Conservatives and a little history lesson. 1995 was a catastrophic night for the party with losses of over 2,000 councillors on just 25% of the vote. In 1996, the Tories got 27% but still lost 600 seats. From then on, every year has seen the Conservative recovery in local Government continue. Conversely, for Labour, the 47% achieved in the 1995 local elections was the high point and ever since the party has slipped back at every election when compared with the one before either in terms of votes and/or seats.

I strongly suspect the Conservatives will make more gains in 2009 and win the General Election in 2010 but some of the results on Thursday night against the Liberal Democrats in the south suggest to me that the tide has got as far as it can. I remember in Penwith in 1995 the Tories held a couple of seats that they ought to have lost and even as they were being massacred in the 1997 General Election, many of the 1993 County Council losses were being reversed.

Democracy is a fickle mistress and the checks and balances are always there. Once in Government, it will not, in my view, be long before the local election losses begin given the high base the Conservatives will be defending in 2011 and 2012. Indeed, I suspect many of Thursday's gains will be reversed in four years time and Boris Johnson will face a much tougher battle to remain as Mayor.

For the Liberal Democrats, the next "opportunity" will be during this period of Conservative weakness. The election of Nick Clegg will be seen as being wise from around 2012 onward as the Cameron Government runs into trouble. The Party must be positioned to exploit the drift away from Cameron that will inevitably occur. The good performance last night provides that bedrock that can be built on.

Conservatives will have much to enjoy in the next couple of years as the Brown Government crashes and burns culminating in David Cameron entering 10 Downing Street. However, politics is also a long game and as night follows day the Cameron Government will in time hit trouble. That will be when the current euphoria gets tested as the public turn away possibly initially only in protest but that protest will be enough to cost the seats of a number of Conservative Councillors.


Paul said...

It seems to reasonable expect Conservative popularity will peak sometime between now and May 2010 but I don't think this set of elections will be the peak because this is the first time the Tories have looked like winners since 1992. Strong and weak horses etc.

But there is possibility you are overlooking. That Labour will implode after the next election, if it suffers a heavy defeat, fighting over the meaning of the Labour party. Not that that will be bad for the LD's of course but the Tories might get another filip there.

Now, are there any circumstances where it makes strategic sense for Labour to be the target of LD critism before the Tories?

Sean said...

Next year should see very big Conservative gains, because Labour will be defending County Council seats it won in 2005, on the back of the general election.

But that, I think, will be the Conservatives' high water mark, in local government, unless Labour implodes.