Conservative conference: PM is not a liability, insist Camden Tories
Organisers say looming Town Hall elections will be fought on local issues - and not Theresa May's leadership or Brexit
05 October, 2017 — By Richard Osley
Members of Camden’s Conservatives at conference in Manchester
CONSERVATIVES returned to Camden from the party’s conference yesterday (Wednesday) insisting that neither Theresa May’s performance or where individuals stood on Brexit would play a major role in the borough’s looming elections.
Members maintained that the Prime Minister would not be a liability when residents vote on who they want to represent them at the Town Hall, despite a week away in which the future of the party’s leadership was never far from the surface in the hotel bars here in Manchester.
Meanwhile, organisers defended the decision to field candidates who voted Leave during last year’s European Union referendum in critical wards, including Swiss Cottage, where the party is facing a threat of losing council seats to Labour, and in Hampstead, where both councillor Oliver Cooper and candidate Hamish Hunter were Brexiteers.
Hampstead and Kilburn association chairman Giovanni Spinella said: “Brexit is not on the ballot paper in the Camden elections. People know who you vote to be your local councillor is not going to change Brexit one iota, whether you were for Leave or Remain. It will be an election about your bins, your streets.”
The elections in May could become a key moment in Camden’s political history, with Labour hoping to build on recent results by taking more council seats than ever before. There is even talk of Camden resembling neighbouring Islington, where all but one of the seats are held by Jeremy Corbyn’s party.
Cllr Spinella said: “Labour are obviously going to target Swiss Cottage and Belsize. Judging by the last results, there is a danger, but the electorate in Camden has shown how sophisticated it can be time and time again. We will show how hard we work on the local issues people care about.”
Changes to the way local associations are structured across London to make them more competitive would soon be revealed, he said, but changing the leader nationally would not be a deciding factor. The issue was back in focus again yesterday, however, after Mrs May delivered a calamity-ridden main stage speech which she stumbled through with a persistent cough, while parts of the stage backdrop began to collapse. Meanwhile, Simon Brodkin, the stunt comedian and a former pupil at University College School in Hampstead, interrupted her flow by handing her a P45, which he said was from Boris Johnson.
Cllr Spinella said: “If you want to ask about councillors wanting to change leaders, then you should ask Labour’s cabinet members, like Danny Beales and Adam Harrison. It’s been more of an issue for them than us, but in the Conservative Party you have to ask: who else? Who is this great, messianic leader who could come in and mean we win every council seat in London?” Cllrs Beales and Harrison signed a letter calling for Mr Corbyn to step down last summer.
Cllr Spinella said: “The situation is tough for the Conservatives, but we are not in denial. And not being in denial means you can start to tackle the problem.” Like the Labour conference the week before, some members in Manchester remained confused about the party’s fixed policy on how best to leave the EU, although there appeared to be little appetite for a second vote on the terms of the exit deal once it has been finalised.
Organisers are not concerned that candidates who voted to leave the EU will be punished at the ballot box locally. They do not see Labour MP Tulip Siddiq’s increased majority in the Hampstead and Kilburn parliamentary seat as a product of her all-out opposition to Brexit. New Tory candidates considered rising stars in the local group, including Calvin Robinson, Charlotte Kude and Henry Newman, all voted Leave, putting them in the minority in Camden, where around 75 per cent of people wanted to remain in Europe.
In an off-the-cuff remark last month, crossbench peer Baroness Deech said the area was so wedded to Europe that “telling people in Hampstead you voted Leave is a bit like coming out as gay in the 1950s”. Even among local Tories who voted Remain, however, there is a general consensus that Mrs May and the party should now work to get the best deal on the basis that Brexit cannot be prevented.
Cllr Cooper told the New Journal: “It doesn’t come up on the doorstep. People know that we are not here to change national foreign debate, we are here to sort out bins, parking, trees. That’s what we need to focus on.”
He added that Mrs May’s speech would go down well in Camden – among those who listened to the content rather than read newspaper sketches. “You can’t control a cough but if you look at the bits she could control she raised issues like building new social housing and addressing mental health issues,” he said. “These are things that come up on the doorstep. “It is undoubtedly the case that the conference has not been reported by journalists like that because there have been too many egos here that needed massaging.”