Island Conservatives were in buoyant mood as they arrived at the local government election count last Friday. Their party had just won the Hartlepool by-election, taking the former Labour stronghold with a massive majority; they were making gains across the country and former council leader David Pugh, now Tory association chairman, had assured them they were on track to keep control of the council. In view of the national news some optimistic souls were even briefing they might increase their numbers, even naming seats they thought would go their way, including Sandown North and Totland and Colwell.
A few sounded a note of caution, as no canvassing had taken place due to Covid, but it seemed the mood of the country was with them.
However, a few hours later the Island proved, as it so often does, that it makes up its own mind. The first sign that things were not going to plan came as rumours started to circulate that council leader, Dave Stewart, may be in trouble. As the count progressed new gossip reached the press room that Cowes North, a seat held comfortably in 2017 by Paul Bertie, who stepped down this year, may go to Labour’s Richard Quigley.
Due to Covid restrictions, the press were excluded from the actual count and provided with large screens to watch proceedings from a separate room. Richard came up to chat and, whilst he wouldn’t speculate on whether he was going to win, he seemed pretty cheerful.
The number of candidates allowed in the count was also restricted – so those excluded gathered outside in the sunshine to gossip, exchange news and views from inside the count and congratulate or commiserate with others depending on how they thought they were doing.
When the final results were announced the rumours proved entirely accurate. Dave Stewart had indeed lost the Chale, Niton and Shorwell seat to Green Party candidate Claire Critchison, and by a large margin of 240 votes. Richard Hollis, councillor for Newport West, who’d decided to try his hand in the Tory seat of Cowes North, lost to Labour, and former council leader Jonathan Bacon had defeated sitting councillor Brian Tyndall by more than 150 votes. The mood in the Tory camp had turned decidedly glum.
Dave Stewart was disappointed but generous in defeat, wishing his successor well and saying he respected the decision of the electorate. He declined to give his views on the reasons why local Conservatives had done so badly, saying the discussion was for another day. His party lost six seats (one technically vacant due to the recent death of Ryde’s Adrian Axford), leaving them with 18 seats out of 39, with 20 required to secure a majority.
By the end of the day the Tories were still the biggest party, but had lost control of the council.
On the day that Conservatives across the country were celebrating, Island Tories fell victim to a 2.7 per cent swing against them, with 2,500 votes fewer than they picked up in 2017. On a turnout almost four per cent down it proved their undoing.
Taking the Island’s electorate for granted is never a wise idea.