Tory rightwingers demand change of tack as Boris Johnson takes mantle of man most likely to eventually succeed Cameron
David Cameron is under intense pressure to change the course of his government after suffering a severe electoral defeat that saw Labour chalk up gains across the country, and Ken Livingstone run Boris Johnson closer than expected in the London mayoral contest.
The prime minister’s hopes that the elections would represent a chance to turn the page on a catalogue of errors since the disastrous budget were dashed as the Conservative right immediately called on their leader to be more assertive over his Liberal Democrat partners.
Ed Miliband, seizing control of 32 councils across the country, claimed Labour was back on the people’s side, but promised he would work hard every day to win the electorate’s trust. His aides, delighted by a strong showing in Scotland and southern England, admitted Labour had benefited from Tory abstainers as well as converts.
Senior Liberal Democrats warned that another set of resultslike Friday’s would spell the end of the party as an independent nationwide force.
In an acerbic attack on the government, Lord Oakeshott, the former Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman, said the party would only recover popularity if growth is restored to the economy. He said: “The Treasury looks like a beached whale after the tide has gone out – there is the odd spout about yet more cuts but basically they are clueless and helpless.”
The deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, said he was “really sad” at the results, and promised to continue to play his role in rescuing the economy. He will appear in a BBC interview where he will argue he is still radicalised by office. He will insist the party can recover by 2015.
Despite a late wobble Johnson won a second term as London mayor, beating Ken Livingstone by 3%, a closer contest than the polls had predicted. Johnson got 1,054,811 first and second preference votes in total. Livingstone scored 992,273 votes, and said he was truly sorry to Londoners for failing to win, adding this was his last election. He added: “I suspect this result has settled the question of the next Tory leadership election.”
Labour activists rounded on Livingstone for crassly insulting Jewish voters. It was pointed out that in seats with strong Jewish communities, such as Barnet, the Labour candidate outpolled his Tory rival by 21,000, yet in the mayoral election in the same seat Johnson beat Livingstone by 24,000.
But Johnson easily outpolled his Conservative colleagues across the London assembly elections, where Labour made sweeping gains, underlining the extent to which Johnson’s personality and politics had immunised him from the Tories’ suddenly plummeting popularity.
The Green candidate, Jenny Jones, just pulled ahead of the Liberal Democrat Brian Paddick in the race for third place, polling 4.48%, with Paddick on 4.16%.
Johnson, now installed as the man most likely to eventually succeed Cameron as Conservative leader, is to tell the prime minister an eclectic winning formula includes remaining “bone dry” on the economy so long as it is accompanied by a clear, compassionate Conservatism. He promised to serve a full term to 2016, beyond the next election.
But Stewart Jackson, the former parliamentary aide to Northern Ireland secretary Owen Patterson, warned: “David Cameron is on notice that he does need to raise his game. He needs to focus on bread and butter issues like jobs and mortgages and public services and, above all, to develop a clear route map to growth, and stop fixating on the agenda of a liberal clique around him and barmy policies such as Lords reform and gay marriage, which people either don’t like or don’t care about.”
He added: “There is a growing frustration from many Conservative backbenchers that their views are not being listened to. If you get one Labour or Liberal voter to vote Conservative at the general election but lose three or four others to Ukip, you are not going to win the election.”
Some Tories, led by David Davis and John Redwood, are expected to demand that next week’s Queen’s speech highlights crime, immigration and Europe.
Cameron’s aides have already started discussions on whether to offer a referendum on Europe in the party’s election manifesto, and make this known before the European elections in 2014 as a way of spiking the guns of Ukip.
Lord Mandelson, the former business secretary, called for a referendum on Europe, but said it was many years off, after the euro had been stabilised.
Cameron did not offer his backbenchers any immediate initiative by response, saying the results reflect a government dealing with “difficult times and no easy answers”.
“Obviously, when you’re taking difficult decisions to bring the country out of the broken economy that Labour left us, there aren’t easy decisions,” he said. The foreign secretary, William Hague, promised the coalition would not be veering to left or right.
Cameron and Clegg will appear together at a joint event on Tuesday before the Queen’s speech – then Cameron’s government risks being engulfed again in two days of Leveson inquiry hearings.
In a further blow to Cameron’s domestic agenda, voters in every English city save Bristol decisively rejected the idea of directly elected mayors. Birmingham, often seen as the big city most likely to vote “yes”, instead voted “no” by a margin of 57.8%. Eight other cities have rejected plans to replace local council cabinets with directly elected mayors.