4 May 2018

Local election votes and Brexit committee penalty shoot-out

On Theresa May’s election victory tour, Channel 4 News’ Anja Popp asked her: “Are you tempted to call a snap general election Prime Minister?” Theresa May laughed and said: “No I think we’ll just enjoy this …” before her ad-lib drifted off.

One pro-Remain Conservative told me last night’s results were “a bit of a disaster for our side.” He said they would encourage Tories to see Brexit supporters as their core demographic and prioritise pleasing them. At the same time, he worried, Labour would now feel it has to go hunting lost Brexit support to make up vital electoral ground outside London.

The more hardline amongst the Brexit-supporting Tory MPs might be emboldened by the overnight results in some pro-Leave areas of England. Those who have been waving around letters to Graham Brady, the Chairman of the 1922 Committee, calling for a vote of no confidence in Theresa May, could in the tense weeks and months ahead feel that throwing the pieces in the air and seeing where they land, even if it heightens the risk of a general election, is not such a risk as some have suggested and preferable to what they see as a heavily diluted Brexit.

One Tory pro-Brexit Whatsapp group was peppered with “#Brexitwinninghere” messages from MPs.

This election didn’t deliver a decisive shift in opinion, but at a time when the balance of power on Brexit issues in the Tory senior ranks is finely balanced, it could stiffen the resolve of those trying to harden Theresa May’s position.

An indication of just how finely balanced things are came at the critical Brexit Cabinet Committee on Wednesday as the opening contributions came to a close. After Greg Clarke opened the comments on the Partnership proposal that Theresa May wanted approved, his “pro” contribution was followed by two “anti” contributions (Liam Fox and David Davis) and then the Chancellor (“pro”) followed by the Foreign Secretary (“anti”). The Prime Minister then said she felt she should share her views (“pro”) before handing over to Sajid Javid (“anti”), David Lidington (“pro”), Michael Gove (“anti”) and then Karen Bradley (“pro”). At this stage, the discussion was evenly balanced. The final contribution came from Gavin Williamson who revealed his “anti” position. And after a brief few words from the Chief Whip (who doesn’t appear to be a formal member of this “SN” Strategy and Negotiations Committee but was asked along anyway) one Cabinet member couldn’t contain himself. Boris Johnson had been counting the contributions like a penalty shoot-out. Fearing conversation was going to breathe more life into the Partnership plan, Mr Johnson blurted out “that’s 6-5, it’s 6-5 … let’s have a vote.”

One witness to this unconventional demand for a vote believes that Boris Johnson wasn’t trying to humiliate the Prime Minister (though that would undoubtedly have been the result). They felt he simply had the bit between his teeth and “wanted to kill the (Partnership) idea there and then.”

Philip Hammond spotted that Sajid Javid had, by that point, had to leave the room to get to Buckingham Palace to receive the seals of office. “Let’s have the vote,” Mr Hammond suggested, with the numbers having fallen back to 5-5. His contribution seems to have been more lighthearted than Boris Johnson’s.

It’s not the first time Mr Johnson has called for a vote around that table and constitutional experts who regularly explain how votes are never taken around the Cabinet table might find this pushing against the convention an interesting footnote. But it is probably a bit more than that and points to tensions, brittleness and a desire on the part of the Brexiteers to settle things, not let them slide and not give Mrs May as much leeway as should like. David Davis has told friends he feels that he has quite often pulled other Brexiteers into line explaining that the least unpalatable option may have to be swallowed. On the Customs Partnership he wasn’t willing to do that and there’s no option yet in sight on which he and the Prime Minister agree.

Boris Johnson crafts a tweet that wraps an attack on Jeremy Corbyn around a threat to Theresa May

How is Labour looking after last night’s local elections?

Jeremy Corbyn pronounced himself “delighted.” One prominent pro-Corbyn MP said: “They’re disappointed.” The MP said: “Labour is not saying anything to Labour-identifying Brexiteers, not saying anything to them culturally or politically.” The assumption that old heartlands will stay firm “is being challenged again and again.” Sir John Curtice on the BBC said that the Tories increased their share of the vote in heavily Leave areas by 13 per cent. There’s already evidence that Labour slipped backwards in some of these sorts of areas.

This is not enough of a setback to threaten Mr Corbyn’s leadership. His grip on the party remains tight. But some voices are already suggesting that it owes quite a bit to the dissident voices in the Parliamentary Labour Party and that the time is coming to unleash activists on some of the most troublesome, “to make examples of them” as one pro-Corbyn MP put it, “to instil some discipline.”

Labour’s predicament was not helped by their own expectations management. The party is quite right to say that Labour figures long since stopped talking about taking Westminster or Kensington and Chelsea (though some had definitely talked about it not so long ago). But the leader’s own itinerary on his local elections campaign tour shows you how these elections have disappointed. According to our records, he visited Trafford, Dudley, Swindon, Watford, Kensington and Chelsea, Westminster, Wandsworth, Plymouth, Derby, Kirklees, Barnet, Hillingdon, North East Lincolnshire, Lambeth and Thurrock. Of those, at time of writing, Labour has gained sole control only in  Plymouth (from the Tories) and Kirklees (from No Overall Control).

The BBC’s equivalent national share of the vote figures suggest Labour and the Tories are level pegging in yesterday’s voting on 35 per cent a piece. If that’s right (other calculations will emerge – there will be an estimate produced by the local elections experts Michael Thrasher and Colin Rallings in the Sunday Times this weekend) it would be the first time an opposition party hasn’t won a local election projected national share of the vote outside of a general election campaign since 1999 (though the margin of lead was a meagre 1 per cent in 2011 and 2016).

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