Tomorrow is the biggest day of Britain's electoral calendar for 2022, with local council elections across some of England, all of Scotland and Wales, plus the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Tories in worst position for 15 years
The timing could barely be worse for Boris Johnson, with at least one round of 'Partygate' fines delivered by the police, the Sue Grey report due soon and rumoured to be terrible for the PM, and his party consistently trailing in the polls. The Conservatives are in their worst position, and Labour their best in nearly 15 years, since Gordon Brown's very early days as Prime Minister.
It is always important to note for council elections that the seats being decided are not necessarily reflective of the whole country. The biggest council races are in London and there's a marked bias towards urban seats. To get an accurate gauge of what the results say about the overall state of play, we'll need to wait for the Projected National Share (PNS) to be calculated.
National polls have remained grim throughout the campaign for the Conservatives, and so too the news cycle. Attempts to deflect Covid rule-breaking onto Keir Starmer have yielded negligible effect, according to polls. Instead they've found themselves mired in more scandal, with Neil Parish MP forced to resign after watching porn in Parliament, and accusations of misogyny and smearing Angela Rayner.
Cost of living crisis trumps other issues
More important than all of that is the cost of living crisis. Polling evidence and anecdotes from the doorstep tell the predictable tale. People are struggling, scared and far more concerned with this than any other issue. Boris Johnson's tone-deaf interview with Susannah Reid yesterday is unlikely to help, and may very well have compounded Tory woes.
Nevertheless, all is far from lost for Johnson. Local elections are usually measured by the success of the PR, and already a ridiculously high bar has been spun for Labour. This projection from Opros Politics was repeated widely across a range of media but local elections guru Colin Rallings says the maximum realistic loss of councillors is between 300 and 400. Stephen Bush makes a solid point.
Betting-wise, the focus is on the most competitive councils. Here's a list of odds from the Sportsbook.
BARNET: LAB MAJORITY 4/9, CON MAJORITY 15/8, NO OVERALL CONTROL 10/1
GOSPORT: LIB DEM MAJORITY EVS, CON MAJORITY 6/5, NOC 5/1
HARROW: LAB MAJORITY 1/12, CON MAJORITY 15/2, NOC 12/1
HILLINGDON: CON MAJORITY 3/10, LAB MAJORITY 5/2, NOC 14/1
KINGSTON-UPON-THAMES: LD MAJORITY 1/12, CON MAJORITY 7/1, NOC 14/1
STOCKPORT: NOC 1/10, LD MAJORITY 15/2, LAB MAJORITY 9/1
WANDSWORTH: LAB MAJORITY 1/4, CON MAJORITY 10/3, NOC 10/1
WESTMINSTER: CON MAJORITY 4/11, LAB MAJORITY 2/1, NOC 10/1
WOKING: NOC 4/9, LD MAJORITY 2/1, CON MAJORITY 8/1
Big London gains will be very hard for Labour
First, regarding London, beware overstating Labour's improvement. When these wards were last up in 2018, Jeremy Corbyn was at the peak of his leadership and the two main parties were virtually tied. The demographic and electoral realignment that accelerated after Brexit had already taken effect in London. Labour have little room to grow.
I do expect them to take Barnet, because their failure to do so earlier was due to a specific problem. Labour's anti-semitism crisis was particularly damaging here, in a borough where 15% of the population are Jewish. At the time, I warned against backing them here on the basis of the reports from friends in the area. Starmer has poured a lot into winning this seat and demonstrating to the local Jewish community that his Labour is both apologetic, and different. I expect it to pay dividends.
Whilst London-wide polls definitely imply Wandsworth is in range, I'm wary of such short odds, given the party's repeated failure over many decades to win what was Margaret Thatcher's flagship London council. As for Westminster and Hillingdon, I expect the Tories will deliver at short odds. The wards Labour need to win just don't look vulnerable.
Tories struggling to retain recent converts
Where I do think the Tories are extremely vulnerable is in the so-called Red and Blue walls. Polls have swung sharply against them in the seats they took off Labour to win a majority in 2019. Those converts have little history of voting Conservative and in many cases, did so due to Brexit or fear of Jeremy Corbyn.
In their Southern heartlands, whether in last year's locals or by-elections such as Chesham and Amersham, the trends are very worrying for Johnson. I expect the Lib Dems to have an excellent night. They are the obvious beneficiaries of a mid-term protest from regular Tory voters which, along with apathy, has been reported all across the country.
Lib Dems to thrive where facing Tories
But even in these cases, it will be very hard for the Lib Dems to take control of whole councils. Take Gosport, in Hampshire. The Tories hold 19 of the 34 council wards, compared to 14 for the Lib Dems and one for Labour. Following boundary changes, there are now 28 wards, so 15 is required for overall control.
However looking at those previous results under the old boundaries, it isn't obvious where the Lib Dems will make sufficient gains to gain control. Even money about them doing so doesn't appeal at all. No Overall Control looks a lot more realistic and at odds of 5/1, the value option.
Woking could be vulnerable to Lib Dem surge
One area where the yellow team have high hopes of a breakthrough is Woking in Surrey, where ten of the 30 wards are up for election. At present, the council is hung and ruled by a minority Tory administration. The Lib Dems would need to gain four.
Of the ten in play, Labour are only fielding a candidate in two. Thus, the race looks more like a straight Con/LD fight. This is precisely the kind of seat where I believe the Tories are vulnerable. Wealthier than average, Home Counties, London commuter belt, voted heavily for Remain in the 2016 EU referendum. Ripe for an anti-Johnson, mid-term protest and tactical switching from Labour to Lib Dem, in the absence of their own party.
It is important to add the caveat that these are not like national elections, where turnout is reliably high and we non-locals have a bank of information at our disposal. Local issues will play a big role. So whilst these bets are recommended, they don't carry the weight of a general election constituency bet.
Results to spell further trouble for Johnson
Where I am happier to take a stronger view is the fallout. The parties will spin the results differently and it is highly unlikely that a narrative emerges that will, of itself, make Johnson's shaky position untenable. However it can exacerbate his troubles and lead into a summer of discontent among Tories.
We now have two by-elections to look forward to in the near future - Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton. The Tories are short odds-on to lose both, the first to Labour, the second to the Lib Dems. The fact the local campaign has been so poor, especially from Johnson himself, will lead to recriminations and I believe they will be humiliated in both by-elections.
Bad news will compound bad news. Within weeks, I expect Johnson's position to become extremely vulnerable. The cost of living crisis is set to worsen and the government has no answers. The Sue Gray Report is rumoured to include information that could destroy Johnson and his acolytes are making a bad situation worse with ever more bizarre defences and distractions. If you're not on already, take 2.3211/8 about him leaving office in 2022.