With the Budget out of the way, the next major political event is set to be the local elections in May – as always, elections are the ultimate test in the success of a party and their leader. More often than not with local elections, a narrative develops afterwards, and the actual figures become meaningless. There is often desperate spin from all parties to ensure they manage expectations by making ridiculous predictions beforehand- for example the Tories might say that Labour would have to gain 1000 seats to have a good night, and Labour would say that a gain of 300 seats would be a great night. Then, the result lands somewhere in the middle, and both sides point and say how the other is doing so badly.
We saw a similar situation in Eastleigh, where Grant Shapps tried vainly to spin the unspinnable – the Tories came third, but of course, said Shapps – Labour had finished fourth, was was far worse. Shapps of course was overlooking the fact that Eastleigh was not in Labour’s top 200 targets, whilst Eastleigh is very much the exact type of seat the Tories need to win if they have any chance of an overall majority in 2015.
The point is that sometimes results can be so bad, that you just look silly trying to spin them otherwise. Just look at the councils up for election in May:-
(Tables from Wikipedia)
Just look at how many of the councils are Conservative controlled. Here are the figures for total number of councillors:-
Labour are starting from a base of just 23%. These elections were last held in 2009 – arguably the nadir of their thirteen years in government, before they staged a small recovery in 2010 in time for the general election. Barring an absolute catastrophe, Labour are going to gain a lot of seats, and more crucially, the Tories are going to lose a lot.
Now, why is this important? There is no serious talk of a leadership challenge at the moment. Could there be afterwards? The Tories losing council seats to Labour will be expected – but what if UKIP start eating substantially into the Tory vote? The Conservative party would suddenly be faced with Eastleigh happening on a wider scale – UKIP splitting the right wing vote.
Would the Conservatives panic if there was a substantial loss of seats? Their ultimate fear must be a 1983 style result where Labour and the SDP split the votes of the left, happening on the right. There could be a 100 seat Labour majority by default. What if the Tories decide that it’s time to shore up their base with a new leader?
It’s unlikely. The local elections will most likely be written off as the usual disappointment for governing parties. In fact, the Tories will be expected to do so badly, that if they actually manage to keep their head above water and stay within a few percentage points of Labour, it will genuinely look like a fairly good night for them. Gordon Brown survived some catastrophic local election results. But, it is possible that it could lead to some Conservative panic. And as we saw in 1990 and 2003, when the Tories believe they are going down to defeat, they can be more ruthless than anyone.
As for the Lib Dems? They can only really exceed the incredibly low expectations that people will have – and Nick Clegg has survived far worse than a set of bad local election results. It’s still far more likely than not that these will be the three party leaders that fight the next election.