The last twelve months have been traumatic for the Conservative Party. It has elected and deposed two party leaders. It has found itself caught in a financial crisis of its own making. And most recently it has faced a still largely unresolved ‘winter of discontent’ from a public sector workforce that, like much of those who are reliant on them, is unhappy about the state of public services.
The opinion polls have long since registered their estimate of the damage this sequence of dramas has inflicted on the party’s popularity. But the local elections last week provided us with the first firm evidence from across the country of actual choices in real ballot boxes.
The results make uncomfortable reading for the Conservatives. They show the party’s popularity has taken a significant knock. However, the position may not be irretrievable.
Last week’s elections were mostly for seats that were last contested in May 2019, when the Conservatives (and Labour) were split over Theresa May’s Brexit deal and had plummeted in the polls. These seats were disproportionately located in what is often termed the ‘Tory shires’. Between them these features might have led one to think the party would be protected from the worst consequences of any unpopularity.
Not a bit of it. In advance of polling day the party said it could lose a thousand seats – seemingly an attempt to inflate expectations in the hope that the damage would be less severe than that. It was not.
The Conservatives’ support was two points down on what was a poor performance four years ago. It was also four points lower than last May – only a little less than the six-point drop registered by the polls.