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Daggers Drawn – Or Sheathed?


As the Tories’ trouncing is laid bare all eyes turn on what, if anything, Rishi’s rebels plan to do about it. Just take the hit and fall into line? Or finally make their move? As our Political Correspondent Peter Spencer reports, there’s no disputing the party is now in the fabled last chance saloon.

Everyone’s been saying for ages the local and mayoral contests, plus the Blackpool by-election, would be the final throw of the dice before the real thing. And a kick in the ballots it most surely turned out to be.

From the moment the results started trickling in the number crunchers were doing their bit. And, from the Conservative perspective, their worst.

Putting aside the details of little reverses and little consolations in little patches, the broad picture is easily summed up.

The British electorate has taken a long, hard look at the current government, and found it wanting.

But is it all over bar the pouting? At this point it’s worth a look at the trend away from the Tories and, whether they can find any way of limiting the damage.

The official line, that council losses were inevitable as the contested seats hit a high water mark last time round, doesn’t hold a lot of water, excuse pun.

Any more than the suggestion that they were essentially about potholes, pavements and bin collections rather than the overall strategy of national government.

That’s because the general sense of declining services does fit really rather neatly into the perception that the country’s gone to the dogs.

Besides which, the parliamentary election in Blackpool was an opportunity for the electorate to have its say on Sunak’s achievements, or otherwise.

And a twenty-six per cent swing away from him is a damning verdict by anyone’s standards.

It was also, by the way, the eleventh such loss since Boris Johnson took the nation by storm. And more ammo for those who might yet be weighing up their chances of a successful Sunak-sinking putsch.

Of course he will draw comfort from the fact that his chum Ben Houchen managed to cling onto the Metro mayoralty in Tees Valley.

But a tease is just what it is, given the great lengths the man went to – to keep his brand separate from that of the party in Westminster.

And the fact that the other regional Tory big shot Andy Street lost out after a knife-edge contest adds further force to the Conservatives’ already doom-laden scenario.

Asked if the results were ‘catastrophic’ for them, Britain’s top polling guru Professor Sir John Curtice replied: ‘Not far short of it.’

Desperate times? Desperate measures? By pretty much any reasonable yardstick mowing down yet another leader would make the Charge of the Light Brigade look like a jolly good idea.

But mangled mindsets can conjure magical solutions.

And the dissidents’ discussion has doubtless focussed on the clearly discernible drift among many voters in the direction of a more hardline, right wing approach.

Hence the burgeoning support for Richard Tice’s Reform party.

Results in council seats where they put up candidates tended to bear out a YouGov poll last week that indicated nearly a third of 2019 Tory voters have now gone their way.

Bearing in mind, however, that Tice’s outfit is essentially the reincarnation of Nigel Farage’s old Brexit party, the punters’ messaging is, to say the least, mixed.

That’s because, as early results started streaming in, Labour won control of a whole string of councils in areas where a clear majority voted in David Cameron’s referendum to leave the European Union.

Food for thought there for the man who looks that much more likely, on the basis of Thursday’s voting patterns, to be our next Prime Minister.

Or next but one, depending on whether Tory dissidents manage to kick out the present one.

But in all seriousness, Keir Starmer could well revisit his policy towards Brussels in the next few months, maybe even make it a general election dividing line with the Tories.

Thus far he’s been hyper-cautious, seeking better relations with the continent but ruling out so much as rejoining the single market. And rebuffing a European idea of renewed freedom of movement between countries.

However, the danger of losing support in leave supporting constituencies, notably in the so-called ‘Red Wall’, might just strike him as a risk worth taking.

After all, this weekend’s results do chime with polling over recent months that clearly indicate a shift in public attitudes to Brexit.

Three-quarters of those asked now think it damaged the economy, and a clear majority of those who voted to leave would go opt to go back in, if they got the chance.

Those numbers could nudge even further upwards thanks to border checks on food and plant imports introduced last week, as a long-delayed consequence of our leaving the union.

They didn’t attract much in the way of headlines. But if, as leading industry experts warn, they result in imminent hikes in food prices, we’re all likely to notice. And, in time, figure out the connection.

Yet another reason why, if Starmer chose to give partial re-entry a go he could be pushing at a half-open door. A space worth watching.

Naturally enough, those who back Reform would hate him for it. But they pose a far greater threat to the Tories than they do to Labour.

That’s because their support is spread too widely and too thinly. Meaning our first-past-the-post electoral system puts paid to any meaningful hope of getting MPs into parliament.

Conversely, however, it does divide the right-of-centre vote. Which has the effect of making it easier for Labour to bag the seats where opinions are split down the middle.

Another factor set to put a spring in Starmer’s step is the hullabaloo going on in Scotland.

Even if things settle down and the Scot Nats manage to slither reasonably gracefully out of the crisis that followed the resignation of former First Minister Hamza Yousaf, their party’s fortunes have unquestionably waned.

What with the departure of his predecessor Nicola Sturgeon, who was always their star attraction, and the scandal surrounding their finances, it’s little wonder they’ve lost their poll lead.

And, given that the place was a Labour heartland until it lost forty of its forty-one MPs to the nationalists nine years ago, there’s another rich seam for Starmer to dig into.

Though it’s been fourteen years since his side’s been in government, sometimes the longer the wait the sweeter the reward. Especially when it’s been so tantalisingly hiding, just out of sight, for so long.

Marilyn Birch, from Pontardawe in South Wales, knows all about that.

Her engagement ring slipped off while she was feeding cattle on her family farm more than half a century ago. But after hunting and hunting she finally had to give it up as lost.

Finally, that is, until detectorist Keith Phillips decided to trawl her land for hidden treasure.

After he’d dug out a few bits and pieces she said one evening, as a joke: ‘Listen now Keith, never mind all this rubbish you’re finding, go and find my engagement ring for me.’

Funny thing is, a week or so later, he did just that. She cleaned it up with a toothbrush, and it hasn’t left her finger since.

‘I was actually speechless,’ she said. ‘And Keith was quite emotional about it as well because he was so delighted that he found this ring for me.’

Ah, you can just picture the scene. Bless ’em both …


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