According to Boris Johnson’s roadmap, most coronavirus restrictions will still be in place on May 6th, with indoor household mixing still banned and only outdoor hospitality allowed. But the prime minister is pressing ahead with England’s local elections that day, and Scottish and Welsh parliamentary elections will also go ahead.
Looking at the polls it is not hard to see why Johnson is keen to press ahead with the elections as a vaccine rollout bounce put the Conservatives 13 points ahead of Labour in one survey last week. That is only half the lead the Tories enjoyed in early 2020, but it follows months since last autumn during which the two parties were effectively tied.
Downing Street can also draw cheer from the latest Scottish polls which have broken a run of more than 20 showing support for independence ahead. The last three polls point to a statistical tie, with support for the union ahead by only a point or two but support for the Scottish National Party (SNP) is also down.
Nicola Sturgeon heads a minority government at Holyrood with support from the Greens, who also back independence, but the SNP has not won an overall majority since 2011. The party has unwisely allowed the expectation to take hold that it is on course for a majority in May but the latest polls put that in doubt.
Labour has been more prudent, and launching the party’s election campaign on Thursday, Keir Starmer was keen to play down expectations.
“They’re going to be tough, these elections. We’re in a pandemic, and we are constrained in the way we can campaign. But we’re going to fight for every vote in this set of elections,” he said.
Since he became leader almost a year ago, Starmer has sought to present Labour as “under new management”, distancing himself from the more unpopular elements of Jeremy Corbyn’s legacy. He has avoided ideological battles with the Conservatives over issues such as Brexit, and has refused to be drawn into phoney culture wars.
He focused instead on portraying the government as incompetent, skewering Johnson at prime minister’s questions every Wednesday over his serial failures in dealing with the pandemic. For a long time it was a winning formula, but the success of Britain’s vaccine rollout has blunted Starmer’s criticism and restored much of Johnson’s popularity.
Starmer won the Labour leadership by promising to unite the party by pursuing similar economic policies to Corbyn but eliminating the negatives surrounding the former leadership, particularly over its response to accusations of antisemitism. Many left-wing Labour members backed Starmer over Rebecca Long-Bailey, the official candidate of the Left, but Corbyn’s suspension from the party last year was a major break with the former leader’s friends in the parliamentary party.
Earlier this year MPs on the right of the party began to whisper against Starmer, complaining about his lack of boldness and suggesting that he should strengthen the front bench by promoting themselves and their allies. This fuelled a media narrative driven by a series of below-par outings at the despatch box that the Labour leader might not be up to the job, lacking the star quality needed to take on a political force of nature like Johnson.
There were signs this week that the political weather might be turning as Labour moved back towards its polling average in the high 30s and Starmer gave his best performance at prime minister's questions in months. He challenged Johnson on the government's decision to give NHS nurses a pay rise of just 1 per cent – an effective pay cut for many on account of inflation.
“My mum was a nurse; my sister was a nurse; my wife works in the NHS – I know what it means to work for the NHS. When I clapped for carers, I meant it; the prime minister clapped for carers, then he shut the door in their face at the first opportunity,” he said.
Starmer contrasted Johnson's parsimony towards the nurses who saved his life when he had coronavirus last year with his award of a £40,000 pay rise to his former adviser Dominic Cummings.
And he referred to reports that the prime minister and his fiancée Carrie Symonds had spent £200,000 on renovating their flat in Downing Street, tapping wealthy Conservative donors to pick up the bill.
The Conservatives’ poll bounce from the vaccine rollout may already have peaked, but even if the two parties remain at their current level Labour is on course to do well in May’s elections.
Corbyn confounded expectations in June 2017 to win 40 per cent of the vote, Labour’s biggest share since 2001. One reason that success came as a surprise to many was that in the local elections a month earlier, Labour won just 27 per cent of the vote and lost 382 seats, a quarter of what the party held before the election.
Starmer is unlikely to do worse than that in May.