Can Boris Johnson survive the beating he took in UK local elections?

The local elections in the UK on Thursday delivered a “black eye” to Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his party. The Conservatives lost a significant number of seats in the party’s English heartland but the much bigger potential challenges facing the prime minister now lie in the rest of the UK, including Scotland.

In England, the party lost scores of council seats. It performed better outside of London than within the capital, where it lost control of flagship councils, including Westminster and Wandsworth, it had controlled for decades. Labour, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats therefore made clear corresponding gains.

In Scotland, the situation was even worse for the Conservatives, who experienced their worst election results north of the border in a decade. The pandemic-related “Partygate” scandal, which erupted when it emerged that Downing Street officials broke lockdown rules by organizing social gatherings, clearly had a strong effect on the electorate.

The overall projected national share of the vote — an estimate of the share each party would have received if elections had been held in every ward in the UK — put Labour on 35 percent; the Conservatives on 30 percent; and the Liberal Democrats on 19 percent, with about 16 percent for other parties. Based on this measure, it was Labour’s best result against the Conservatives for a decade.

What the results yet again highlight is the exceptional volatility of UK politics over the past decade and a half, after a series of shocks including the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and the Brexit referendum in 2016. This will worry Johnson and his Conservative government in Westminster, who face a potentially tricky summer and autumn.

The post-Brexit challenges are particularly significant outside of England, where a potentially transformational change is brewing in devolved nations.

In Scotland, for instance, a new power-sharing deal in the Holyrood legislature is now in effect between the SNP and Greens, which First Minister Nicola Sturgeon hopes will provide the pathway to the nation’s independence this decade.

About two and a half years after his landslide general election victory in 2019, the Boris Johnson government is significantly weakened.

Andrew Hammond

Over the next few years tensions are likely to grow between London and Edinburgh over the terms of a potential new referendum. In the previous one, in 2014, 55 percent of people voted to remain in the UK, and 45 percent to leave. Polls suggest that about 50 percent of Scottish voters now want the nation to leave the union and go it alone — and this in a context where Johnson and the Conservative Party are increasingly unpopular in Scotland.

Johnson hopes to find some renewed political momentum in coming weeks that might help to give his administration a governing purpose in the absence of any coherent, defining signature issues other than leading the UK through the storm of the pandemic.

On Friday, he played down the significance of Thursday’s election results, which he described as “mixed.” He said that “the big lesson from this is that this is a message from voters that what they want us to do above all, one, two and three, is focus on the big issues that matter to them, taking the country forward.”
However, he will continue to face strong political headwinds.

Most recently these problems have been economic in nature, with the UK facing a cost-of-living crisis, including rampant inflation and weak growth. The main beneficiary of this is the Labour Party, which has opened up a significant lead in national polls, as Thursday’s projected national share data indicated.

So, about two and a half years after Johnson’s landslide general election victory in 2019, the government is therefore significantly weakened. What is increasingly clear is that while the prime minister might be one of the best campaigners in UK politics, thanks to his ability to use simple slogans such as “Get Brexit done” to connect with the electorate, his ability to govern is much weaker.

This is being seized upon by Johnson’s critics within his own party, and Thursday’s elections will do little to quell the disquiet within its ranks about whether he can survive this year in office, let alone lead the party into the next general election. Indeed, were it not for the Ukraine crisis, there might well have been a leadership challenge by now.

This point was highlighted on Friday by Tobias Ellwood, a Conservative MP who chairs the House of Commons Defense Committee. Renewing his call for a vote of no confidence in Johnson, he said the party was “hemorrhaging support in parts of the country. It’s for other colleagues to take a stock check, not just for these elections but also in the next couple of weeks. We know there’s more evidence to come out; the Sue Gray report (on the Partygate scandal) as well.”

When Johnson scored his huge general election victory in 2019, it was widely expected that he would remain in office for much of the decade to come. Yet the roller-coaster ride that his premiership has proved to be means his term could yet end much sooner, potentially in ignominious circumstances and perhaps even this year.

  • Andrew Hammond

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