Local elections 2022: Tories left ‘gobsmacked’ over Liberal Democrat insurgency in south-west London

A yellow wave swept across traditional blue heartlands in the south of England and wealthy west London, indicating a renewed electoral appetite for the Lib Dems’ brand of opposition.

Liberal Democrat local election gains in south London have left local Tories “gobsmacked”, a councillor has claimed.

Voters in Merton rang the changes on May 5, as Conservative seats fell by 10 and the Lib Dems gained 12 new councillors - making their group the borough’s official opposition.

While in Richmond, an ex-headmaster, first elected in 1957, was left as the single Conservative councillor - and group leader by default - after ten colleagues lost their seats.

A yellow wave swept across traditional blue heartlands in the south of England and wealthy west London, indicating a renewed electoral appetite for the Lib Dems’ brand of opposition.

Lib Dem leader Ed Davey addresses supporters following the local council elections, on May 6, 2022 in Wimbledon, England. Photo: Getty

The party gained 224 new councillors across the UK, including 23 in London - centred around the so-called ‘golden crescent’ in Lib Dem led Richmond, Sutton and Kingston.

Seats were picked up in the Labour held boroughs of Brent, Croydon and Lambeth, as well as Tory-run Bromley.

Cllr Simon McGrath, a Lib Dem in Merton, told LondonWorld: “The local Tories are completely gobsmacked - they did not see it coming.

“We were helped by the dismal performance of the government and the very poor performance of the Labour council.

“You could tell at the count. They didn’t think they were going to have a great night but they didn’t expect it. Labour didn’t expect to lose to us either - they’ve got to choose a new leader.

“It was very satisfying.”

Cllr McGrath, a former HR director, added that for the glut of fresh faces in the borough, the aftermath of election night was “a combination of a new job and a first day at school”.

Alongside training sessions on council policies, and newly-issued laptops, he said: “People are already getting residents emailing them asking them to deal with problems.

“We were outside the pub last night and someone came up to us; someone else came into our HQ today.

“Lots of people congratulated Paul on how well he did.”

Paul Kohler and Simon McGrath. Photo: LondonWorld

Now one of the “old hands” in the borough, he’ll be helping newly-elected colleagues get to grips with the “whole new world” of local government.

Also re-elected in Wimbledon, he put the victory down to successful pinpointing of key areas.

“We were targeting eight wards and won seats in all those wards,” he said.

“People are appalled both at party gate and the inaction over the cost of living crisis.”

His priority? To work as an effective opposition party.

“Locally people saw a pretty inept Labour council and a dysfunctional Tory opposition,” he said, branding both groups “the cosy duopoly”.

“Labour achieved very little and the Tories were willing to just sit there and criticise.

“We’ll hold Labour to account constructively.

“We’ve got to get them to start providing some political leadership - on basic stuff like managing the waste contract better.”

Party sources insist the results - including winning the vote share in marginal Westminster constituencies - put them on a good footing for the next general election.

But opponents aren’t so sure.

Ed Davey with Simon McGrath’s cocker spaniels Cora and Nellie. Photo: Getty

Take Cllr Geoffrey Samuel, the sole remaining Tory of previously “heavily Conservative” Richmond-upon-Thames.

“The opposition is now the five Greens in an electoral pact with the Lib Dems,” he says.

“So the opposition is me. It doesn’t exactly make effective challenge easy.”

He admits the results were bruising, saying: “It’s obvious the tide is not in our favour at the moment.

“There’s no disguising the fact that in many quarters the prime minister is unpopular.

“He’s changed the face of the Conservative party in a very different way to Margaret Thatcher.

“She attracted a huge number of Labour voters to vote Conservative. Boris Johnson has managed to do the same in the north, of course.

“In doing so he’s become less attractive to wealthy areas like Richmond and Twickenham.”

Cllr Samuel’s current run as a councillor has lasted 25 years - and he’s seen the area transform.

The shift towards the Lib Dems, he says, began in the 1980s - and no Labour councillor has come “even vaguely near winning” in the borough “for many years”.

“The average income in a Liberal Democrat seat is higher than any other party,” he adds.

Geoffrey Samuel, left, and Nick McLean, right. Photo: Richmond and Merton Councils

And Cllr Nick McLean, Conservative group leader in Merton, thinks the issue is partly down to voters lacking an understanding of local politics.

He said: “A lot of people think because we’ve got a Conservative government that they run the council.

“Or that Stephen Hammond, because he’s the MP, runs the council.

“We want to see more separation from national politics.

“We operate locally. We’re the champions of localism and it was a local election.”

Of the Tories - at least partial - rebranding as local Conservatives, rather than the Conservative Party, he defends the move.

“We are local Conservatives,” he says. “This is about who cleans your streets and invests in the town centre.

“All the Lib Dem literature was about sending a message to the prime minister - people will get the opportunity to do that at a general election and are going to wake up to reality now.”

Commenting on the party’s focus on national issues, he said: “They don’t have the London mayoralty or a big presence at City Hall, and haven’t been running the council.

“You end up losing councillors with 20 years experience to paper candidates who didn’t expect to win.”

While looking to the future, with by-elections upcoming in both Tiverton and Somerton and Froome, both Cllr McGrath and Cllr Kohler sound confident about the party’s chances.

“Both other parties fought the election telling people a vote for us was a vote for the other,” Simon said. “They’re not going to be able to replicate that in a general election.”

While Cllr Kohler added: “We’ve done well in London and better outside of London.

“We’ve shown within Wimbledon the only way to get rid of the Tories is to vote Lib Dem.

“And we’re the tightest Lib Dem Tory marginal in the country - we’ve confirmed that.”