Lesley Riddoch: A bridge too far for Theresa May?

The Tories are on course for a drubbing from a disillusioned public in English local elections, writes Lesley Riddoch

Mrs May may pay the price for cynical use of targets and the state of Englands benefits and housing systems. Picture: PA
Mrs May may pay the price for cynical use of targets and the state of Englands benefits and housing systems. Picture: PA

Theresa May is set for an embarrassing defeat this Thursday – not in the Lords over Brexit, the High Court over the Withdrawal Bill, nor in Brussels over plans for the Irish border.

Thursday’s almost inevitable drubbing will take place on the modest and unlikely electoral battlefield of the English local elections. There will be voting in all 32 London boroughs, 34 metropolitan boroughs, 68 district and borough councils and 17 unitary authorities, as well as contests for Mayor in five London boroughs. The results won’t be straightforward because some boundaries have changed, some seats won by Ukip have since been vacated and only a quarter of seats are up for grabs thanks to the electoral cycle that operates in England. With a turnout of 29 per cent last time round in 2014, it may not look like much of a danger zone. But since 2014 there’s been a General Election, a snap election and the European referendum – the latter clocking up a 72 per cent turnout. Thursday’s local vote won’t come near that – but a low turnout could work in Labour’s favour and the outcome will inevitably be a verdict on the leadership of Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn.

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A Yougov poll shows 51 per cent of Londoners could back Labour. The BBC predicts Labour could beat its previous record of 1,221 London seats set in 1971, while the Conservatives could fall beneath their 1994 low of 519 seats, losing flagship Kensington and Chelsea council, which has been Tory for 50 years. Wandsworth and Westminster might also fall to Labour and the Lib Dems are eyeing up the London boroughs of Kingston and Richmond.

The shameful Windrush fiasco may have been the tin lid, but rage against Theresa May’s government still simmers in council estates across London over the Grenfell Tower disaster that took place almost a year ago. Three days later Theresa May said all residents would be rehoused within three weeks. At the start of this month, almost half were still in temporary accommodation and Grenfell Tower’s owners, Tory-led Kensington and Chelsea council, were found to have built 80 per cent fewer affordable homes than the average London council. The Windrush debacle has only built on this dismal Tory record. And now it’s clear that arbitrary government targets operate in the field of benefit appeals as well as immigration. Last year the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) was found to have told staff that “80 per cent of original decisions [to reject benefit claims] are to be upheld”. Last week, the UK government finally responded to a Commons Select Committee on the use of this “outrageous target” as the chair of a leading Parkinson’s charity described it. The DWP said; “no adverse or incorrect decisions would have been made” as a result of the targets and “there was no link between the measure and the outcome of any decisions”.

Anyone spot a familiar use of language there?

Two weeks ago, Downing Street said the destruction of Windrush-era landing cards in 2010 “would not have had a bearing on immigration cases where Commonwealth citizens are proving residence in the UK”. That claim was immediately undermined by whistle-blowers, who said Home Office staff routinely used Windrush landing card information in decision-making. The impact of benefit appeal targets is no less brutal. Written questions in the Commons show that only 18 per cent of appeals for the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) were approved by the DWP compared to 65 per cent of appeals that reached the safe haven of an independent tribunal. This on top of the revelation that where Universal Credit has been rolled out food banks use has risen by 50 per cent.

Does all of this deceit and doublespeak matter? Yes it does.

It shows, beyond a shadow of doubt, that the Tory party is the Nasty Party again. Theresa May’s cynical use of targets and the resulting collapse of dignity in England’s benefits and housing systems get less coverage than a certain royal wedding in the London tabloids. But a quick search online confirms that almost every local paper in England has a story of tragedy arising from benefits denied and appeals rejected. Bit by bit, the case against Conservatism has been mounting up, and although there’s still doubt about the strength of Labour’s vote outside London on Thursday, there could still be a big upset.

As Vince Cable said in the online site Politics Home: “There’s long been a conceit amongst the political class in Westminster that we are all pretty tolerant but Joe Public is a bigot. The outcome is an agreement not to be too courageous on matters of race and immigration. That conceit has now been exploded. Windrush demonstrates that being ‘tough’ easily degenerates into gross injustice.”

And the public cares. Of course it helps that newspaper and TV coverage of the Windrush scandal has been excellent and leaks suggest well-placed Tories are gunning for the beleaguered Home Secretary Amber Rudd and perhaps her predecessor in the post Theresa May.

According to former Spectator editor Matthew D’Ancona: “Obliteration in the capital would be a punch in the Conservative solar plexus, a symbolic indignity disproportionate to its actual statistical significance. London, after all, is where Tory MPs live and work for most of the week. They would feel like illegal aliens in a city that hated them – a sentiment close enough to the truth to drill into their collective psyche.”

A lot depends on former Ukip voters in the north of England. Labour has been struggling in Birmingham and support for Ukip is in freefall. But middle of the road Brexiteers may yet agree with Matt Kelly, editor of the New European, who says the Windrush debacle has revealed the Tories to be “a government quite willing to use blunt and brutal tools to pursue the affection of the far right in this country.”

So could a terrible night, with perhaps the loss of all her London councils (unlikely but not unthinkable) leave Theresa May fatally wounded? Of course the prospect of immediate change appeals to very few Tories, but losing London could be a bridge too far even for the seemingly indestructible Theresa May.

A week, once again, may be a long time in politics.