Sunday 22 April 2018

Tories fearing wipeout from London councils plot split

Theresa May. Photo: PA
Theresa May. Photo: PA

Harry Yorke in London

The Conservatives in London have reportedly held secret discussions about a potential breakaway from the national party, amid fears of an electoral wipeout in the local elections next month.

Senior Tories have hosted a series of meetings over the past year in order to draw up plans for a separate party which would boast its own brand, policies and figurehead separate to Prime Minister Theresa May.

The disclosure is deeply embarrassing for Mrs May, who is braced for the party's worst performance in the capital in its 184-year history, when the ballots are cast next month.

According to analysis, the Conservatives are expected to lose almost 100 seats in the capital, falling from 612 to 519, while all nine councils under its control are thought to be at risk.

Meanwhile, 'The Spectator' claims that those involved in the talks have been spurred on by the success of Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, whose distinct brand and policies have been credited for the party's remarkable turnaround in Scotland.

It comes after a series of U-turns and unpopular manifesto promises were blamed for Mrs May's disastrous performance in last year's general election.

In London, one Tory MP who has been campaigning in recent weeks claimed that Nickie Aiken, the Westminster council leader, is expecting to lose come May 3, as is Ravi Govindia, the leader of Wandsworth council.

Others, including councillors from Kensington and Chelsea, are said to have experienced a "big shock" on the doorstep in the wake of the Grenfell Tower blaze, while the Conservative campaign headquarters is said to be "panicking" about the borough falling to Labour.

Faced with electoral oblivion, those pushing for a split have reportedly called for a regional leader to be appointed, who would be tasked with differentiating the group from the "very provincial" image provided by Mrs May.

The breakaway would also likely result in the group adopting a differing stance on Brexit to the national party, with the majority of Tory MPs based in the capital residing in constituencies which voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU.

According to one London Tory, next month's elections will be about "bins not Brexit", with local candidates shying away from discussing national issues on the doorstep.

It comes as more than 4,300 council seats come up for grabs in the local elections next month, including all councillors in London's 32 boroughs, 34 metropolitan boroughs, 68 district and borough councils and 17 unitary authorities.

There will also be direct elections for the mayors in Hackney, Lewisham, Newham, Tower Hamlets and Watford.

Robert Hayward, a leading expert on council elections, said: "I expect the Tories to lose seats and the Lib Dems to gain seats but I don't expect them to lose to such an extent that it would endanger Theresa May's prime ministership.

"People outside London are much more nationalistic, more loyal to the country and that is because of the make-up of the population."

A source at Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) confirmed individual members held discussions on the subject last year, but added that they were not active proposals being considered by the party. A CCHQ spokesman said London Conservatives "have a distinct voice" within the party and that it had recently appointed a new Vice-Chairman for London.

Irish Independent

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