Momentum are coming for us like White Walkers, but we've got our Muhammad Ali: Tory MPs share their fears on the forthcoming elections

 
Catherine Neilan
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Game Of Thrones White Walkers Photocall
The White Walkers are coming: Tory MP compares Momentum to Game of Thrones zombies (Source: Getty)

With just under 90 days to go until local elections in the capital, Conservative Party HQ is going into overdrive to show it can fend off the multiple threats of Brexit tensions, a vulnerable leadership, the fallout from the Grenfell Tower tragedy and the rise of the Corbyn-supporting Momentum campaign group.

The Tories face a tough time across the country, but especially in London where the Remain vote was high and Labour is traditionally stronger. Not a single Tory MP spoken to by City A.M. was confident the party could actually make gains, while many suggested it was a case of damage limitation.

For Prime Minister Theresa May the stakes couldn’t be higher - the 3 May elections are widely regarded as the next big flashpoint for her leadership.

There is some optimism about the team behind the campaign, which was formed during the otherwise shambolic reshuffle. Party chairman Brandon Lewis, and vice chairs including James Cleverly, Kemi Badenoch and Paul Scully are seen as having a strong grasp of the tactics needed for door-to-door campaigning.

Harlow MP Rob Halfon has particular praise for Scully, who heads up the London unit. “He is brilliant - if anyone is going to turn it around, he’s the one.” Halfon says. “He is the Muhammad Ali of the team. He wakes up thinking ‘how many Labour activists can we get rid of today?’”

But the scale of the challenge is huge. “It’s an impossible, uphill task, and they are coming for us like the White Walkers,” Halfon adds, alluding to the zombie-type characters from Game of Thrones. “The fact is Momentum White Walkers are coming for us, they are vicious and there are hundreds of them, and they grow every day. The [Conservative] party has huge problems with membership infrastructure and what that means is that it’s very hard to have numbers out on the doorstep. We need radical change, but of course it won’t happen before the elections.”

That view is shared by many of Halfon’s colleagues, and there is widespread fear that the elections will be little more than a washout for the Tories - although many are still clinging onto the hope that the hard-left positioning of Labour will save a few votes.

“We are going to be dropping [votes] like a lead balloon,” said one MP who asked not to be named. “There are good people [in party HQ] but Theresa May is so cautious there will be no fundamental changes. Nothing will change until after Brexit, when it will become clear the party needs a revolution.”

Even Scully admits it will be “a real challenge”, acknowledging that national-level frustrations over Brexit and the leadership are raised on the doorstep, but that the campaign is very much focused on local issues.

“I don’t want people, residents across London, to protest about something that is not going to be affected by the election results and then have poor services and higher council tax as a result,” he tells City A.M.

More than a handful of MPs have said local associations are distancing themselves from the national party out of embarrassment and concern it will cost them votes. However, it’s clear that even if May is kept at arm's length from the campaign, she would be blamed for a poor showing. Given how precarious her position is, it could easily tip the party over the edge, finally triggering a leadership challenge.

It is not just the lacklustre leadership that concerns those campaigning in London. There is also an awareness of the impact of Brexit on a largely Remain-voting capital city. Some councils have written directly to EU citizens to try and reassure them that their contribution is recognised and that their future remains with London; others are planning to do it closer to the time.

“We have always thought London would be extremely difficult,” explains Stephen Hammond, the former party vice chairman for London who was unceremoniously sacked for defying the government over the EU Withdrawal Bill. “That’s partly the election cycle, partly because we didn’t have a great time in london last time around, and also this is the first election post-Brexit in which EU nationals can vote. If they don’t feel reassured they may use this to express frustration.”

Another critical factor is Grenfell Tower. It is thought that Kensington & Chelsea, currently one of the party’s nine councils, is likely to fall in the wake of last year’s tragedy, which laid bare the stark contrast between the area’s haves and have-nots.

Westminster is also seen as a totemic council worth putting extra resource behind winning - as it has been clearly targeted by Labour - but Scully insists no one borough is more important than another.

“All nine councils will have very high emphasis to make sure we meet that challenge,” he says. “I believe we can win in Kensington, I’m confident in our abilities. It is one part of the real challenge we have in London.”

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