WALTER CRONXITE has put down his copy of Boxing News to assess the ringcraft of Croydon’s defeated Tories as they warm up for their next big bout
Like a boxer who has taken one heavy blow to the chin too many, Croydon’s Conservatives have been stumbling around since they were knocked out of the Town Hall by Labour at last month’s local elections.
Maybe they have a bit of post-fight blurred vision.
On the evening of Friday, May 23, barely 12 hours after the final declaration of the results confirmed that they were exiled from power in Croydon for the first time since 2006, the borough’s remaining 30 Tory councillors, few of whom had had a decent night’s sleep for at least two days, wandered in to a room in the Town Hall and dutifully voted to keep florid-faced Mike Fisher as their leader.
Fisher has been a sitting duck politically for more than six months, ever since a selection panel of Conservative party members – including a couple of his own front-bench “team” of senior councillors – rejected him as a suitable candidate for the safe Tory parliamentary seat of Croydon South.
Fisher is also the man who effectively threw-in the towel on the local elections through his mis-handling of the campaign in key wards. So how could his fellow councillors think he ought to lead them at the Town Hall in the coming months?
“We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water,” Dudley Mead, who has been in Fisher’s corner for longer than most, was telling anyone who would listen as he left the brief meeting to head off for a relaxing bank holiday weekend (possibly to play a round with one of his occasional golf partners, Nathan Elvery, the council’s interim chief executive).
But the signs are that Croydon’s Tories don’t really fancy their next heavyweight bout.
With a key marginal seat to defend in Croydon Central at next year’s General Election, who else wants to risk the longer term reputational damage and come forward to face another possible thumping like the 40-seat to 30 defeat they suffered in the Town Hall elections?
The depth of the Tory losses on May 22 mean that they don’t even have the hope of overturning Labour’s 10-seat majority through council by-elections between now and 2018. It took 12 years for the Conservatives to regain power in Katharine Street when they lost the council in 1994. And then, the score on the judges’ cards at the end of that bout was also 40-30.
Maybe they are suffering from a bit of post-election delayed concussion, like a journeyman fighter who takes a bout because he desperately needs the paltry purse. What else explains this week’s decision to select Vidhi Mohan as the Tory candidate for Croydon North at the General Election? Croydon North’s defending champ Steve Reed might expect the referee to step in to stop his opponent taking too much punishment when he goes toe-to-toe with gaffe-prone Fairfield councillor Mohan at next May election.
Those watching Croydon Tories going through their paces in the Town Hall in the last four weeks are suggesting that many of their problems lie in inept tactical thinking, which has got worse since they took the punch that lost them the title.
Unsurprisingly, ageing ex-champ Fisher has been throwing a couple of rabbit punches, including boasting that he and his mates have left a £100 million funding black hole at the Town Hall.
This hidden financial mess, unmentioned by Fisher before the elections, has been created by his own party’s cuts to the government grant for Croydon, and Fisher claims this will derail Labour’s “Ambitions for Croydon”.
This is where Fisher has dropped his guard to Labour counter-punches. Labour will be free for the next four years to hit the Tories in the solar plexus by saying say that any troubles they have in delivering for the borough are all the fault of Fisher and the Tories’ mismanagement of the Town Hall’s finances.
In his speech at Croydon Council’s “Mayor Making” ceremony, Fisher also claimed that his Labour successors would not enjoy the “largesse” of the previous Labour government’s grants to the borough. It is as if Fisher wants to take all the punishment his opponent can throw at him: effectively, the leader of Croydon’s Tories was saying that Labour were more generous to Croydon than his own ConDem coalition government. On this form, any future bouts involving Fisher will look like a mis-match.
Labour believe that better financial management, extra income from business rates by being pro-business, and from Council Tax by being pro-development and innovation, will see them defuse Fisher’s “time bomb”.
It used to be said of the former British champion, Joe Bugner, that he had the physique of a Greek statue, and the mobility of one, too.
Croydon Tories’ footwork in the ring since the local elections is looking pretty leaden as well.
The Conservatives have taken to attacking the voters of Croydon for their ingratitude, a move that is at once petulant and patronising, and not something which usually wins back wavering support.
One former Conservative councillor, Clare Hilley, is believed to be hoping to revive her flagging political career by seeking selection for a safe Tory seat in rural Suffolk, though her parting shot to Croydon was to accuse its voters of being “ungrateful”, “dumb” and unworthy even of holding the right to vote.
Following the defeat, the Conservatives appear to be having something akin to a series of elimination bouts, to determine who will go forward and champion their cause in the months to come. Will it be Phil “Bruiser” Thomas, the hardened street fighter? Or will it be the more refined style of their Oxbridge blue, Gavin Barwell?
The debate within the Croydon Conservative Federation has seen Barwell produce a paper which is highly critical of the way the local election campaign was run. In it, Barwell even mentions Inside Croydon as an example to local Tories.
Barwell doesn’t pull any punches. He compared the lacklustre Tory campaign in most of the borough with the more upbeat election which he oversaw in Addiscombe. The Conservatives still lost in Addiscombe, but Barwell was able to point to his target ward outperforming by 13 per cent the typical swing in the borough’s other marginal wards.
This has got Thomas, who played an often lonely role in the losing Tory campaign in Waddon, on the ropes. But the old slugger has come out swinging. According to Barwell, his report is especially resented by Thomas because it has made many of the same observations as Inside Croydon.
Barwell – who has previously overseen campaigns in which the words “Conservative” or “Tory” have been barely used – wants a more positive tone. His state-funded parlimentary communications manager, Mario Creatura, himself now a councillor in Coulsdon West, has been quick to adopt the upbeat approach favoured by his boss.
Croydon’s Conservatives genuinely fear that they are set to face a further electoral setback next year in the Croydon Central parliamentary seat. A loss of Tory self-confidence risks communicating itself to the electorate, with Barwell wittering on to a local newspaper about how he fears losing his seat.
But just as in boxing, the punters, or voters, like to back a winner. A candidate portraying himself as the likely loser before he even gets into the ring risks having his predictions become self-fulfilling.
And the Tories are increasingly worried that they won’t “make the weight” come the time of their next big fight. They believe that demographics could be changing the make-up of Croydon Central. Such change has already seen, over the last 30 years, two Conservative-held parliamentary seats in north Croydon become one of the safest seats for Labour in London.
That might also be happening in Croydon Central, where after May’s local elections, five of the constituency’s eight wards are now Labour, as the Tories lost their lone seat in New Addington and Labour seized Ashburton.
If the Liberal-Democrat vote does not recover in 2015, and there’s no sign that it will, the Tories fear that Barwell just cannot hold the seat. More than 1 in 8 voters supported Nick Clegg in Croydon Central in the 2010 General Election. The Tories hope that they will get a bit more punching power if those who voted UKIP in 2014 instead vote for David Cameron in 2015. And they might just land a blow if the 3,000-or-so voters who in 2010 supported the former Tory MP, Andrew Pelling, when he stood as an independent, all return to the Conservative fold.
But to do that, Croydon’s Tories must first pick themselves up off the canvas. And one month on, they still appear out for the count.
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Coming to Croydon
- Crystal Palace Overground Festival, June 26-29
- Warnings to the Curious, Spread Eagle Theatre, June 27
- Metamono Secrets of Nature, Upper Norwood, June 27
- Park Hill Park meet the police session, June 27
- St Peter’s Village Fayre, South Croydon, June 28
- South Norwood Allotments open day, June 28
- Croydon Careers Fair, North End, June 30
- Fragile, Spread Eagle Theatre, July 24-26
- Coast to Capital business briefing, July 4
- Basically Johnny Moped at Stanley Tech, July 8
- CODA’s Midsummer Night’s Dream at Wandle Park, Jul 30-Aug 2
- Elm Tree Cottage garden open day, Aug 10
- Norwood Society Talk: War Memorials, Sep 18
- Norwood Society Talk: From Fire Station to Theatre, Oct 16
- Norwood Society Talk: Lambeth’s Archives, Nov 20
Inside Croydon: Croydon’s only independent news source, based in the heart of the borough: 72,342 average monthly page views (Jan-Mar 2014)
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