Will Russia disrupt the local elections? That’s the question being asked in Westminster. But rather than worries over Russian meddling and subterfuge, the issue at hand is whether Jeremy Corbyn’s questionable response to the attempted murder of a former Russian double agent on British soil will help boost the Conservative vote come May.
Those local elections are expected to be a blood bath for the Tories, with Labour predicted to win big – particularly in the capital. The Conservatives are so worried about the vote that the managing expectations operations includes suggesting that it would be a disappointing night for Labour if the party didn’t win every London council.
But in recent days something strange has happened. Labour activists report a hostile reception on the doorstep in London starting late last week and continuing over the weekend. The issue? Corbyn’s stance on Russia – and specifically his handling of the Russian spy incident. In areas like Wandsworth, I’m told it was the topic that repeatedly came up on the doorstep; ‘it’s all anyone wants to talk about’. Canvassers report residents saying they were planning to vote for Labour but they won’t following Jeremy Corbyn’s limp response on Russia. Already a narrative is forming within Labour circles, that if they now fail to take Wandsworth or Westminster, it will be down to the Leader’s Office and Russia.
Now of course this could just be a blip – and the conversation could turn back to local issues or Brexit as of this week. But it will be of some comfort to the beleaguered Conservatives that – by contrast – May’s handling of the Russia crisis has seen an uptick in her popularity. Two polls give the Conservatives a small lead over Labour – and a SkyData poll last week found that 69pc surveyed would prefer May to deal with Russia than the Labour leader.
What works in Corbyn’s favour in relation to the locals, is it’s hard to see how interest in this issue can be sustained over the two months. In a sign that Corbyn’s allies realise it’s not playing out well and want to change the conversation, John McDonnell notably endorsed Theresa May’s position on Sunday. Conservatives dreading May will be hoping it’s Jeremy Corbyn and Seumas Milne doing the talking in the coming weeks.