George Pascoe-Watson: Team May are looking beyond the local elections - to 2022
The PM and her top team have already priced in a hammering on 3 May.
-- THE INSIDER --
In Theresa May’s rear view mirror she can still see the smouldering wreckage of June 2017. Yet the PM’s sights are fixed firmly not on the fast-looming locals, but on the next general election.
The work in Tory high command has already started for May 5, 2022. May 3, 2018 is just around the corner and already Labour’s strategists and Mrs May’s Conservative critics scent blood. Many agitating for a new Conservative leader have begun organising to strike if the expected dire results pave the way for change in a few weeks’ time. But they may face a tougher challenge to unseat her than they imagine.
Mrs May’s already priced in a hammering across the country. The last time these seats were contested Labour seized nearly 400. That was before Brexit. Leaving the EU is likely to put the turbo-boosters on the result.
Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats are conscious that Mrs May will pay a price for the perception of a pro-Leave government. This partly explains Sir Keir Starmer’s recent tactical move on customs union membership. Don’t forget, either, that EU citizens living in the UK can also vote for the last time in this poll.
No, the PM and her top team have their sights set on what happens four years from now. This year’s local elections in England are certain to be a particularly difficult night. This is the year in the electoral cycle where traditionally Labour do well and the Tories nosedive. Virtually all the seats won in 2014 are up for grabs and Mrs May is prepared for significant Tory losses. So her chief lieutenant Brandon Lewis, the new Tory chairman, has set about building a team and the technology needed to win in 2022, rather than in 2018.
Mr Lewis has made no secret of the task ahead. But he is trusted by the PM's inner circle and without being showy, is seen as an inspired choice as chairman.
Under his watch a massive revamped field campaign team boasting nearly 100 new managers is in place. State-of-the-art digital technology and strategy is being installed and refined. But expectations for May 3 are spectacularly low. In many ways, a new narrative is beginning to take shape. May 3 is Labour’s night to lose.
London will be seen as the focus of the event as Labour look to turn the capital’s town halls entirely red. This clean sweep would be bitter for a Conservative Party which has long proudly governed the boroughs of Wandsworth, Westminster and Barnet. All three may well go. Privately, the PM would be pleased to keep Bexley and Bromley as Labour romp to victory on the back of an anti-Brexit backlash in London.
To be clear, Mr Lewis is a competitive figure who has not written off Tory chances in May. But the odds were stacked before he was appointed in the January reshuffle.
An advance form of expectation management has been underway in Tory circles for some time. Just a day into 2018, George Osborne’s Evening Standard splashed ‘Theresa May could lose half of London councils’. This was from a study conducted by Tory stalwart Lord Rob Hayward – someone who is well known to the field operation at CCHQ.
Conservative strategists around the Premier are working hard to ensure their own party sees these polls as a bump in the road. MPs and activists must understand the dynamics at play. Labour need a clean sweep of London to get them a respectable night. LibDems may well eat into their advances, advisers tell me.
It’s also being pointed out that people need not panic. Losing control of a council doesn’t necessarily hand Labour a win. Jeremy Corbyn’s candidates must work hard to pull off that level of victory, the story goes.
And there’s a further question being posed behind closed doors. Could the party have realistically done any better with anyone else at the helm?
Mrs May’s hand-to-mouth survival plan is working perhaps better than anyone could have expected. A potentially catastrophic moment is never far – and the fallout of the critical next round of Brexit negotiations could be a fudge too far for some Cabinet figures.
But there is a growing resilience among her team. Their capacity to take pain and move forward is impressing many. Her handling of the Russian nerve agent outrage in Salisbury is winning her plaudits from not just her own side of the House. Strong and stable was much mocked last June. But for Team May, it still rings true.
Local elections will be held within England, with elections to all 32 London boroughs, 34 metropolitan boroughs, 68 district/borough councils and 17 unitary authorities on Thursday 3 May 2018. There will also be direct elections for the Mayoralties of Hackney, Lewisham, Newham, Tower Hamlets and Watford.
Picture: Press Association