When Theresa May stood on the steps of Downing Street and spoke directly to the people of Britain she showed that she understood the complexity of people’s lives, and we all gave a collective sigh of relief across the Country that the Head Girl was in charge and we were in capable hands.
Parliament continued with several tight votes, and then suddenly an election was called – surprising everyone. As we trooped through the voting lobbies for the last time we were assured that the manifesto would be brief, it would cover our high level ambitions and vision, but not dwell on detail. Theresa has set our her Government’s plan for Britain at the Conservative Spring forum, so we knew the sense of direction.
The PM was riding high in the polls and we were out to spread the message in the Country and in London. That first weekend I was in Hampstead, and I pursued a succession of visits to seats that the Conservatives were hoping to win.
In my home patch, I was very conscious having lived locally in Kensington all my life that this was a tough area – I have been a school governor underneath the Westway for over 20 years, and had held my weekly meetings with constituents in the Salvation Army, the local voluntary centre, where they also run the food banks, and local churches, where people can feel safe. Contrary to popular belief Kensington has two of the most deprived areas of the country and a high proportion of children on free school meals, and yes we have food banks. Behind those white stucco facades we have a great many people who are not “just about managing”
Then the manifesto hit – most of us were shocked. Where was the spoonful of sugar from Mary Poppins to soften the blow? We had just the large gulp of medicine.
Where had these policies been discussed? where had they been “road tested”? On the doorsteps we were challenged with: “You are taking away my free lunch”, No I am not: I am giving you breakfast as well….. our communication was not clear and we looked as if we were prevaricating. Policies have to be simple to explain. If the PM or the Chancellor had been able to come out and say: Higher rate taxpayers will not be receiving the Winter Fuel Payment and Free School Meals, the matter would have been addressed in a day, with most sensible people agreeing that was fair.
Door knocking across London – in Brentford and Isleworth, in Ealing and Acton, in Twickenham voters were dismayed, what exactly was on offer?
Businesses – so long the backbone of Britain, our entrepreneurs, found themselves confused by further regulations when they were keen to shed the red tape imposed by the EU. Where was the reassurance on social policy, NHS and investing in our next generation to fill the potential skills gap?
Behind the scenes on our internal networks, colleagues across the Country were challenged on the doorsteps, The Conservative response: “we shall consult” put fears into the elderly – traditional conservative voters, and Corbyn’s manifesto of a false nirvana bribing the next generation, but not telling them how they will be paying for it, with future national debt. The consequences of a Corbyn government for prosperity, jobs and living standards would have been catastrophic but voters were tempted and succumbed.
Londoners adept at social media were fed a whole slew of falsehoods, the young were bought in by promises of free university places, and one by one on that fateful night London seats turned to Labour, with 6 seats gained by Labour with increased majorities, the only one to buck that trend was Zac Goldsmith, winning back his Richmond Park seat. The end result: 49 of the 73 London seats now held by Labour, 21 by Conservatives, and 3 by the Lib Dems.
Realistically, the sad state of affairs for the Conservatives in London started before this administration, let’s look back to the 2010 London Council elections: 37% vote share to Labour and 35% to the Conservatives. In 2014 Council elections Labour held control of 20 boroughs, to the Conservatives 9 boroughs, the Conservatives notably losing Hammersmith and Fulham and Croydon.
At the General Election in 2015, Labour’s vote share rises to 44%, the Conservatives remain at 35% of the London vote, replicated a year later in 2016 on the Mayoral vote, with just over 44% to Labour for Mayor Khan, and Conservatives resolutely sticking at 35%.
Over recent years London has benefited greatly from the existing economic order and has grown substantially over the past decades to account for an increasing share of UK population, output and employment with population growth supported by international migration and skills. Successes include high employment the success of our financial markets and the ongoing confidence of the economy.
However within London the pattern of growth has been uneven. On the downside London has experienced increasing congestion, pollution and significant housing shortages, pressures on public services and infrastructure. In Central London we have really seen all those pressures. From my time at the GLA I know that London attracts the young – often Labour voters and the older generation, during the election campaign, uncertain about the health and social care in their declining years.
Concerns have been expressed from all sides about how the Brexit negotiations will impact on London, what are the threats and the opportunities? The London result was probably impacted by concerns from families of the 3.48 million non-UK nationals who are working over here. However Governments do not thrive on uncertainty, opposition parties were quick to exploit such uncertainties.
Nationally, excepting our metropolitan areas which vote next year, Conservatives had reasonable gains in the May local Council elections across the country – triumphs, however close, in Birmingham for Conservative Mayor Andy Street, with 50% of the vote, but Labour’s Andy Burnham winning in Manchester with 63% of the vote – what was the message for London?
Looking ahead to the next elections in May 2018, when we have the Council elections in London and the metropolitan areas, what will be the Conservative message? Now, more than ever we need policies that resonate with the almost 9 million people who live in Greater London, the culturally diverse striving powerhouse and the contrasting residents who live in relative poverty and who the Conservatives have always said we would look after.
I am delighted that our PM has appointed Rt Hon Greg Hands as her new Minister for London who brings his business expertise, as well as his knowledge of what matters to local residents, from his earlier experience as a Councillor, He understands the complexity of the messages and vision that we shall need to convey.
We need to reassure Londoners of our understanding of the potential of digital infrastructure, and from my time on the Science and Technology Select Committee, our commitment to Britain’s world class research and technical strengths – embodied in Kensington by Imperial; our world renowned museums, also in Kensington, and across London the UK creative sector leads the world in talent.
Pause for a moment, and think back to the Olympics and the amazing feel-good factor that was generated, and to quote my previous boss, Boris Johnson, “… that ready-brek glow of happiness”. These are the messages that the Conservatives need to communicate to show they understand the pressures of those living in Central London, and to win back the votes.
Former MP for Kensington