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Some Conservative MPs might have been reluctant to take on the role of Party Chairman given the current state of the opinion polls. Yet by all accounts, Greg Hands, an energetic and shrewd campaigner, was delighted with his new job. His first test comes with the local elections on May 4th. A poor performance is “baked in” – even optimists do not expect the Party’s fortunes to have been turned around by then. What will soften the blow is that the seats up this year were mostly last contested in 2019. This was in the final weeks of Theresa May’s troubled premiership. The Conservatives made a net loss of 1,330 councillors. The projected national equivalent vote share was just 28 per cent. Labour, under Jeremy Corbyn, was also in the doldrums leaving the Lib Dems to make significant gains.
Next year’s local elections may be of greater significance. They will likely be a springboard into the General Election – unless both elections are held on the same day. Those local elections will see if Andy Street can hold the West Midlands Mayoralty for the Conservatives and if Ben Houchen can do the same in Tees Valley.
2024 will also see the elections for the Mayor of London and the London Assembly. Hands, as the MP for Chelsea and Fulham, can be expected to take a special interest in them. London has been trending towards Labour for some years now due to the miserable rates of owner-occupation.
Andrew Gimson discussed on Monday the decline in the birth rate. It is hardly a surprise if a couple delay getting married and having children until they can afford to buy a family home. Those with these thoroughly Conservative aspirations find themselves driven out of London if they are to have any hope of seeing them fulfilled.
Given all this, Sadiq Khan, the incumbent Mayor of London, doubtless feels that regardless of how dire his performance at City Hall is, his re-election is assured. His failings in policing, housing, and transport have been widely documented on this site and elsewhere – as has his eagerness to extract ever more money from our wallets via the Council Tax precept. Londoners have grumbled but there has been no uprising against him, though he was returned with a reduced majority last time.
Could this now be changing with his proposed Ultra Low Emission Zone expansion? This is his declaration of war on white van man – a £12.50p a day charge for non-compliant vehicles entering the zone.
As the Sunday Times puts it:
“The resistance is building in metroland. It began in the town councils of Hillingdon and Bexley and has spread to the union chapters of Heathrow, the Hindu temples of Harrow and the mock Tudorbethan mansions of Stanmore and Pinner. WhatsApp groups are aflame in Carshalton Beeches.
“Old and young, white van drivers and single mothers: tens of thousands find themselves on the wrong side of London’s ultra low emission zone (Ulez) expansion, due to go ahead in August.”
The arrogant way that Khan has gone about it has galvanised opposition. He declared that those who disagree with him “don’t care” about children’s health and premature deaths rather than considering that others might feel that there are fairer and more effective ways to reduce air pollution. Then there was the manipulation over the consultation. A YouGov poll found that 51 per cent of Londoners opposed the ULEZ expansion, with 31 per cent in favour. Labour voters were evenly split – with 44 per cent in favour and 44 per cent against. Would Khan not have done better to acknowledge the extent of opposition rather than to be so dismissive?
London Assembly members, council leaders, and MPs have noted the strength of feeling in their inboxes and on the doorstep. The issue stands out amidst a general climate of apathy. Voters are disillusioned with the Conservatives but not inspired by Keir Starmer. The two main parties are bumping into each other in the centre ground prompting a wave of electoral indifference. But here is a cause that has provoked a reaction. Four London Labour MPs – Seema Malhotra, Jon Cruddas, Siobhain McDonagh and Abena Oppong-Asare – have expressed opposition to the Mayor on the issue. Two Labour councils – Redbridge and Barking and Dagenham – have also spoken out against the Mayor. As has Havering Council, which is run by a coalition that includes Labour councillors. Khan would not have such open dissent from his own colleagues without considerable strength of public feeling.
Given all this, it is no surprise that London Conservatives are planning to make the next Mayoral and Assembly elections a referendum on ULEZ expansion. A “lend us your vote” pitch could prove seductive. As so often with local elections, turnout is the great challenge. The Conservatives usually have a particular difficulty with outer London boroughs – the people who live there that don’t really regard themselves as part of London. An issue is needed that gets people sufficiently worked up to go to the polls. This is felt to show every sign of doing so.
There are certain caveats. The ULEZ expansion is due to become operational on August 29th. That would mean it would have been under way only for several months by the elections next year.
Then there is the point that diesel cars genuinely are damaging for air quality. Motorists were encouraged to switch to diesel on the grounds that it was eco-friendly – a huge mistake for which Gordon Brown and the EU were to blame. But there it was and this is where we are. The Conservatives should offer fair solutions to the problem – incentives rather than punishments for diesel car owners – not deny that the problem is genuine. This is particularly important for those in congested inner London for whom pollution is more of an issue and the ULEZ expansion less of a difficulty (though punishing white van men also means punishing their customers.)
Finally, the Government might prevent Khan from going ahead with the ULEZ expansion. Lord Moylan is putting forward an amendment to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill that would give the London boroughs the final decision. That would scupper the scheme if the Government accepted it. I hope Moylan succeeds. Many in the home counties as well as the suburbs would cheer if he does. But would the cheering have subsided by May next year? There’s not much gratitude in politics. If so, London Conservatives might have to rely on Khan coming up with a disastrous new idea.