Political Reckoning: UK Conservatives lose spark

Rishi Sunak’s party faces tough challenge amid local election defeat

Published : 18 May 2023 08:28 PM

In cities and town across the United Kingdom, football on Saturdays is a religion of sorts.

At schoolboy level — and schoolgirl too, for the game is almost equally popular now with females — almost every village or community has games.

And where there are semi- or fully professional teams, fans are out by the hundreds and more. Millions attend weekend games, many more watch the televised games around the world.

Southampton still have two more games to go but they are guaranteed to finish bottom of the Premier League, and were relegated by virtue of their loss to Fulham.

For any fan, relegation to a lower league is a painful lesson. On Saturday, after 12 years in the top flight, the ride was over for Southampton. And in the executive box, trying as he might to cheer on his beloved ‘Saints’, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, like the tens of thousands of other fans, knew the game was up. When a team’s time is up, it doesn’t who the manager is, the drop inevitably comes.

Facing an uphill battle

And so it is with Sunak’s Conservatives. They have been in power for the past 13 years, and it matters little who is in charge of the team: They are tired, out of ideas and are facing the inevitable drop back to the opposition benches by the end of next year when a general election has to be called — sooner if Sunak then decides to call time on a game that they can’t win.

Sure, Premier League club owners have a distressing habit of firing their managers when a string of results don’t go their way — Southampton have has three so far this year. The Conservatives? A similar number, between Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and Rishi. The latter’s record isn’t exactly sterling, which is partly why the Tories will be relegated.

Earlier this month, voters in England mostly went to the polls to elect local government councils, city and town councils, and other positions that were up for renewal. The elections for the grass root positions are a very clear indication of a party’s strength. Or weakness.

With some 8,000 seats to be filled, Conservative officials had prepped for the worse with a warning that they could lose about a thousand seats. They did — along with another couple of hundred too, making it far worse than expected.

That’s a very bitter pill for party officials to swallow. Councillors are often the work horses of any party organisation, and it is they and their immediate friends and supports who do much of the heavy lifting at a local level, knocking on doors, delivering leaflets, talking to neighbours, putting the word out.

Now, as a result of the decimation suffered by the Conservatives, that’s far fewer workers who will be willing to support a losing team — and I’m not talking about Southampton here.

Nationally, the Conservative support sits at about 29 per cent, still some 14 points or so behind Labour. For Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer, the results were good, just not quite good enough to secure enough seats come a general election to secure an overall majority.

And for the Liberal-Democrats, a party who is unabashedly in support of rejoining the European Union and reversing the harm caused by Brexit, the local election results were far better than they could have expected, making significant inroads into areas where Conservative seats were a given.

If its results are replicated in a general election, many current senior Conservative ministers face the prospect of losing their seats. The Lib-Dems even took control of Maidenhead council, putting the seat of former PM Theresa May in play.

The real reality

Several months ago, when Labour’s lead was growing to what seemed like unassailable proportions, Sir Kier was asked about any electoral pact with the Lib-Dems or the Scottish National Party to form a government, the answer was a form ‘No’. Now? Any deal with the SNP is still a ‘No’. The Lib-Dems? Well, let’s say he was more coy, more along the links of never say ‘never’.

To continue with this football and political analogy for a while longer, Southampton’s closest Premier League rival is Bournemouth, a club just 50 kilometres away along the south coast. It struggled during most of the season but is assured top flight football next year.

In Bournemouth on Saturday, hundreds of Conservative grass root supporters gathered for the inaugural Conservative Democratic Organisation (CDO) conference.

It’s supposed to be a grass roots effort to rebuild the party. What it actually is a Boris Johnson love fest — a meeting of like-minded right-wing populist Tories who believe that the only way forward is to ditch Sunak and return to the gospel of hard-line Brexit and Boris.

Priti Patel, the former Home Secretary who dreamt up the immoral and subsequently illegal plan to put refugees arriving in Britain onto planes to warehouse them in Rwanda, preached to the converted in Bournemouth that Sunak’s leadership was to blame for the Tories’ poor showing.

And the only person who can fix things is Boris, who was stabbed in the back by Sunak and other Conservative MPs. That’s their reality.

The real reality, of course, is that voters are sick and tired of Brexit and its effects; want things to move on; want to be able to heat their homes and eat their meals; afford to pay mortgages; want to be able to put petrol in their cars without having to take out a mortgage; want their wages to keep pace with inflation, want hospitals that work; trains that run. The list is long.

Mick O'Reilly is Foreign Correspondent at Gulf News. Source: Gulf News