Labour poses no threat, but his born-again eco-extremism puts him on a collision course with the Tory base. After Brexit, this could shape up as Round Two of the British battlers’ revolt against the UK’s London-centric woke elite.
Britain’s local and regional elections on 6 May will mostly be a yawn, aside from the eternal mystery of why the Brits persist with having their elections on Thursdays, rather than following Australia’s shining example of Saturdays, accompanied by sausage sizzles. But three contests will deserve attention.
Unsurprisingly, the Scottish elections will almost certainly be bad news for the Tories. Ominously, they take place one hundred years to the month since the last time the UK shrank, when Ireland was partitioned. The elections could well be followed by the UK’s greatest constitutional crisis since then. The drawn-out brawl between First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her predecessor Alex Salmond sadly doesn’t seem to have damaged the Scottish National Party’s prospects much. One poll projects a majority of 68 of the Scottish Assembly’s 129 seats. But even if the SNP falls short of a majority, there’s little doubt that with the Greens it could assemble a coalition to form government again.
The SNP will then press for another independence referendum, even though it said at the time of the 2014 referendum that it was a ‘once in a generation’ event. But, paradoxically, polling suggests that support for independence, the SNP’s key policy objective, has slipped. A YouGov poll has the ‘no’ case now on a six-point lead, 53-47, up from 51-49 a month earlier.
Assuming Sturgeon wins, she’s likely to want to delay a referendum for two years. Even though Johnson would be on solid ground denying the SNP a second referendum, the best way to save the union would probably be for him to offer one quickly. Doubters will say this would be a replay of David Cameron allowing the Brexit referendum, confident that Remain would win. But in this case the risks of not offering an early referendum would be high. It would give Sturgeon what she wants, the propaganda line of English Tories denying Scots self-determination. A referendum soon would also play to the advantages of the UK’s efficient vaccine roll-out, on top of the many other factors which should sow doubts about the SNP’s plan for a divorce with England and joining the EU: the end of generous subsidies from London, a hard border with Scotland’s most important trading partner; and the euro, which reluctant Scots would have to adopt if the country was admitted as an EU member.
The elections for London’s mayor will be more bad news for the Tories. The only real question is the size of Labour incumbent Sadiq Khan’s landslide. This seems strange given that Johnson recently held the post for two terms (2008-2016) and Khan is hopeless on the issues of practical importance for Londoners – affordable housing, crime and public transport. He has focused his energies on woke posturing. But a bit like our Victoria or the ACT, the Left now seems unassailable in London, however useless it is.
Unlike Scotland and London, the Hartlepool by-election promises better news for the Tories. A remaining part of the northern English ‘red wall’, Labor has won this seat in every election since 1974. Polls show the Tory candidate on 49 per cent to Labour’s 42 per cent. Part of the explanation is Labour’s bonkers choice of an arch-remainer as its candidate in a seat that voted 70 per cent for Brexit. More broadly, the likely result underlines Labour’s continued unpopularity outside its metropolitan strongholds more than any enthusiasm for the Tories under Boris Johnson’s management. Labour leader Keir Starmer has tried desperately to distance himself from the leftist extremism of Jeremy Corbyn. But Starmer’s suspension of Corbyn from the party – because of his refusal to accept the extent of anti-semitism under his leadership – and his sudden appearance at every opportunity in front of Union Flags, hasn’t changed Labour’s unpopularity among its former blue-collar base. Most of Labour’s membership is unrepentant about Corbyn and the photograph of Starmer last year ‘taking the knee’ to the extremist BLM is an image which dogs him whenever he tries to present himself as a sensible moderate.
A Tory win in Hartlepool will obscure looming problems with their electoral base. The PM and former editor of The Speccie, who once made fun of environmentalists, now makes Malcolm Turnbull look like Craig Kelly. He’s announced the world’s most radical carbon reduction plan, down 78 per cent on 1990 levels by 2035.
Drastic action will be required to meet this target. Twenty million homes will require their gas heating replaced with noisy, less effective heat pumps plus better insulation – costing £20k to £25k each. Coal mining will be phased out by 2025 and sales of new petrol cars by 2030. And government advisors claim that there will need to be reduced international aviation, shipping, and a 20 per cent reduction in meat and dairy consumption by 2030.
Nobody around Johnson wants to talk about how all these eco-measures will be achieved and paid for, especially given the massive debt accumulated as a result of the Covid crisis. Johnson has defended himself against charges that he’s become the militant wing of the Greens by saying he’s against carbon taxes and believes technological progress can make all these things more or less cost-free to consumers. If he’s over-optimistic, as seems likely, and consumers start being hit seriously to fund the UK’s 2050 commitment, the Tories will likely quickly become unelectable: in which case expect either a revolt within the Conservative party or a new political force challenging them from the right.
Mark Higgie is The Spectator Australia’s Europe correspondent and is on Twitter at @markhiggie1