New Tory leader calls for Boris Johnson to go after meltdown election loss

Conservative leader compares wreckage to a World War I movie scene

Sunday, 8th May — By Richard Osley

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Two of the three remaining Conservatives at the count this week: Giovanni Spinella and Andrew Parkinson

BORIS Johnson was getting the blame for a new Tory collapse in Camden as the local group’s leader lost his seat in this week’s council elections and the party slipped to a contingent of just three.

As queues of new Labour councillors arrived at the Crowndale Centre to sign in for duty yesterday (Saturday), it was confirmed that Conservative Gio Spinella would now take on the reins.

“The analogy that I’ve used is that you can picture a World War I movie and the soldiers are in the trenches. The officer blows the whistle, they go over the top and then they all get mowed down by machine guns leaving only one guy. He looks around and everybody is dead,” he said.

“And I’m that man. This is the single most challenging moment for the Camden Conservatives. We’ve never had a result this bad and it’s going to take a lot of hard work to rebuild. For us, every election now is an existential battle.”

The party had chosen for candidates to be listed as ‘Local Conservatives’ rather than the ‘Conservative Party’ on the ballot paper for the first time, a move which many saw as an attempt to distance their efforts in Camden from the controversies dogging the Prime Minister and his government – including Mr Johnson’s fine for Covid lockdown breaches.

Cllr Spinella said: “I have to speak personally here, not for every Conservative in Camden, but personally I think Boris Johnson should go and I have been thinking this for quite some time. The behaviour of the Prime Minister during the pandemic and his behaviour after the allegations of partying during lockdown has cemented a severe hostility towards the Conservative brand.

“So, even though on many points of policy in Camden we had residents in Camden that would agree with us, we were told there was a drawback and this time that drawback had a first name and a surname: Boris Johnson.”

Cllr Stephen Stark signs in for another term yesterday (Saturday), pictured with council chief executive Jenny Rowlands

Cllr Spinella said that the party had been right to focus on the handling of the 02 Centre redevelopment plans in Finchley Road and whether a pattern of high rise buildings will shoot up in the coming years, “as this was what residents were coming to us to talk about”. 

But he added: “Labour may say ‘all they had was the 02 Centre’ but all they had was Boris Johnson. The simple reality is that every Labour tweet was all about Boris Johnson. This wasn’t an intellectual debate on the finite detail of policies, Labour just used every tweet and leaflet to tell people to send a message to Boris Johnson.”

Under Oliver Cooper’s leadership, the Conservatives had refused to comment on issues that they could not have a direct effect on as local councillors. Mr Spinella said that this approach may have to be reviewed after another election which he said had been dominated by the national agenda.

The results go against Oliver Cooper at the count

Local organisers have often groaned every time Mr Johnson has used north London, and sometimes Hampstead, as a way to mock the Labour Party ands its leader Sir Keir Starmer for performing well in the capital but not further afield. Despite his own upbringing beginning in Primrose Hill and many years spent living in Islington, the Prime Minister has used the stereotypes to suggest his opponents are out of touch.

“Speaking as a one nation Conservative, as well as a card-carrying member of the ‘metropolitan liberal middle class’ I’m appalled by how all of a sudden London has become in circles within my party’s government a by-word for something negative,” said Cllr Spinella. “The opinion of somebody who lives in Belsize should be as important as someone who lives in Basingstoke.”

The scale of the Tory defeat here was perhaps best illustrated by the failure to hold both seats in Hampstead Town ward, an area it has shared in the past with the Liberal Democrats but more recently has regularly returned Conservative councillors.

Here, Labour won for the first time when Labour’s Adrian Cohen, considered by many to simply be a ‘paper candidate’, found himself elected.

Further damage was inflicted in Belsize as the Liberal Democrats claimed all three seats, taking out the Mr Cooper in doing so. 

Giovanni Spinella will now lead a group of three Tories

The leader’s switch from Hampstead to Belsize had backfired, although Labour council leader Georgia Gould tried to cool the gleeful hackling at this result in the counting hall by acknowledging his service during her victory speech early on Friday.

While it is decades since the Conservatives could challenge strongly enough to get the most seats and lead Camden outright, recent tradition has seen the party often claim a rump of around ten members; they held 14 in a high watermark in 2006 when it showed it could even win in the hot Labour territory of Gospel Oak if the conditions are right.

“This result is the culmination of something that goes back to the 2016 Brexit referendum and the fracture of the liberal middle class, especially in London, and a fracture in the Conservative Party,” he said.

“Although Corbyn was really a Brexiteer, the Conservatives got the blame here because they were the ones who called the referendum. And then there has been a mishandling of Britain ever since, and the government was unable to cobble together a Brexit that could unite the nation and so the divisions have been exacerbated.

Former councillor Don Williams was unable to return to the council chamber after losing in South Hampstead

“You saw in 2018, we lost half our group in Camden. Then people cared more about Brexit than bin collections. This time people were furious about the 02 Centre, but they were more furious with Boris Johnson.”

Cllr Spinella has been the leader of the Camden Tories before but lost out to Mr Cooper in an internal coup four years ago.

Now he’s back but the Conservatives are no longer the official opposition in the council chamber, a role ceded to the Lib Dems.

He said he hoped a bring a “more collegiate” leadership with contributions from all three councillors at meetings, and that there was a need to encourage more Conservative members and natural supporters to get involved.

“The pandemic has had an effect, realistically all local parties have a small activist base to call on,” he said. “All the parties were stretched – but Labour, it’s just a fact, has more resources than we do. After taking a breather, we have to try and reconnect with voters, see how we can tackle antipathy caused by the government’s culture war.”

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