By SARAH LYALL
In bellwether local elections, Britons seem to have turned against their national leaders — though Boris Johnson, the nimble-tongued mayor of London, won a new term.
London’s Mayor Aside, Conservatives Fare Poorly in British Races
By SARAH LYALL
Published: May 4, 2012
LONDON — Boris Johnson, the towheaded, nimble-tongued mayor of London, provided a modest lift for the British Conservative Party on Friday after winning re-election amid a deluge of defeats for the party in local races around the country.
Facundo Arrizabalaga/European Pressphoto Agency
Britons Vote in Bellwether Midterm Ballot (May 4, 2012)
Mr. Johnson’s slender victory over his nearest challenger, the former Labour mayor Ken Livingstone, was all the more significant because London is a natural Labour stronghold. Indeed, the Conservative deputy mayor, Richard Barnes, lost his own re-election bid to a Labour candidate.
But Mr. Johnson’s cheeky charisma, celebrity-wattage visibility and brand of sui generis conservatism helped him convince a disillusioned electorate that he is a different creature altogether from Prime Minister David Cameron and his fraying Tory-led coalition government. In the final vote, Mr. Johnson received 1,054,811 first- and second-preference votes, to Mr. Livingstone’s 992,273.
According to BBC projections with most of the votes counted, Labour gained 38 percent of the national vote in elections to 181 local councils, up three percentage points from its showing in comparable elections last year.
The Conservatives’ share of the vote fell by 4 percent points, to 31 percent, and the Liberal Democrats — the junior partners in the governing coalition — maintained a 16 percent share.
But somehow Mr. Johnson eked out a victory.
“He has established an appeal far broader than that of David Cameron’s party,” Fraser Nelson, editor of the pro-Johnson Spectator magazine, wrote on Friday in The Daily Telegraph.
Referring to the perception that Mr. Johnson, who has a habit of getting into embarrassing scrapes and then blustering his way out of them, is not a serious politician, Mr. Nelson added, “Even his detractors are beginning to wonder if the clown prince might just be on to something.”
The result establishes Mr. Johnson as a potentially serious nuisance, if not a credible threat, to Mr. Cameron. In his concession speech after the result, Mr. Livingstone mischievously addressed the matter head-on, accusing Mr. Cameron of “dragging the Tory Party down to defeat,” and predicted that Mr. Johnson’s victory “has settled the question of the next Tory leadership election.”
The prime minister has come under attack from both the left, angry at his austerity policies, and the right, which says he has made too many concessions to his Liberal Democrat partners while veering from traditional Conservatism in issues like same-sex marriage, which he supports, and Europe, which some believe he has not denounced vociferously enough.
The Conservatives’ poor showing was seen as both a repudiation of Mr. Cameron’s painful economic program and a reflection of the political toll that poorly handled policy initiatives (like a tax on cooked takeout food) and embarrassing episodes (like the phone hacking scandal) have taken on his party.
After the votes were counted for all the council seats contested in England, Scotland and Wales, Labour had gained 823 seats, the Conservatives had lost 405 seats and the Liberal Democrats lost 336 seats. Voter apathy was expressed in voter turnout in England of just 32 percent, the lowest in local elections since 2000, the BBC said.
Ed Miliband, the Labour leader — who gamely carried on campaigning even after someone cracked a raw egg onto his shoulder, leaving his jacket dripping with its detritus — said that his party was no longer in the doldrums.
“Labour is back,” he said.
Mr. Cameron said that he felt sorry that so many Conservatives had lost their seats, but that he would not veer from his tough economic program.
“These are difficult times,” he said, “and there aren’t easy answers.”
In London, the race devolved into a nasty mano a mano battle between Mr. Johnson and Mr. Livingstone. They tussled over their personal tax arrangements, their rival pledges to cut transit fares and local taxes, and their plans to solve the low-cost housing crisis in the city, but much of the race really boiled down to personality.
A pre-election poll in The Evening Standard showed that Mr. Johnson, 47, was more popular than his party and more recognizable than anyone else in British politics, including Mr. Cameron. But though Mr. Cameron is seen these days as vulnerable because of his privileged, Eton-educated background, Mr. Johnson, who also went to Eton, has succeeded somehow in transcending class in the eyes of many voters.
After he won, Mr. Johnson ran through a list of achievements and said he looked forward to running London with “sensible” conservatism. He also announced that he planned to treat himself to a “non-taxpayer-funded libation.”
Labour leaders tried to lower expectations for the next national election, which will most likely be held in 2015. “We are a party winning back people’s trust, regaining ground, but there is more work to do,” Mr. Miliband said.
Mr. Cameron’s Conservatives lost seats on councils in the prime minister’s own parliamentary constituency near Oxford as the Labour Party made inroads into conservative strongholds in southern England. Nine cities that had been urged by Mr. Cameron to vote yes in referendums on whether to have locally elected mayors simply said no.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, said he was “really sad” about his party’s poor result, a casualty of its decision to attach itself to the Conservatives. It could not have helped that in Edinburgh, the party lost a council seat to an independent candidate dressed in a penguin outfit.2 May 2012