LONDON — Prime Minister Boris Johnson was greeted with standing ovations when he addressed Ukraine’s parliament this week. The Ukrainian town of Fontanka, near Odessa, would give its name to a street. And Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said his country “will always be grateful to Boris and Britain” for their support during the war.
UK local elections are part referendum on Boris Johnson
But as the prime minister continues to tweet pictures of him walking with Zelensky through kyiv last month, he is not being hailed as a hero in Britain as much. His Conservative Party is set to take a big hit in local elections across the country on Thursday, in what is seen at least in part as a referendum on Johnson.
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Voters have a lot on their minds as they head to the polls to fill their town halls with mayors and councillors. The cost of living crisis has eclipsed covid as the top concern in opinion polls. Britain’s inflation rate has risen to 7%, its highest rate in more than three decades.
But the government’s handling of the pandemic remains a looming issue, and these elections are the first chance for voters across the country to have their say since the Partygate scandal first broke in the US. ‘fall.
The Prime Minister and his team are now the subject of not one, not two, but three ongoing investigations into a dozen boozy hits that took place during strict coronavirus lockdowns.
A report by civil servant Sue Gray has already determined that the parties were involved in “failures of leadership and judgment.”
London’s Metropolitan Police have already imposed 50 criminal fines, including on Johnson, making him the first sitting prime minister to break the law. Police sources suggest that more fines will be announced after the election.
And Parliament has launched a further inquiry into whether Johnson “knowingly misled” lawmakers about whether government rallies breached government lockdown rules.
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In an interview Tuesday with “Hello BrittanyJohnson insisted he was an “honest” politician who “inadvertently” misled parliament.
The accusation against Johnson is “knowingly misled”, because that is how it is referred to in the ministerial code and because parliamentary rules of propriety prevent lawmakers from calling the prime minister a liar. But the British public is not so constrained.
The latest YouGov poll found that more than three-quarters of Britons (78%) – including half of those planning to vote Conservative – think Johnson lied about Partygate.
Johnson’s reliability, competence and likability polls have plummeted. A majority of Britons say he should quit.
“Boris Johnson, the way he behaves with all the parties in lockdown, he can’t be trusted,” said Darren Hall, 51, a resident of the London borough of Wandsworth, a police-controlled area of closely by analysts.
Wandsworth voted Conservative for 44 years. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher called it her “favorite” borough. Losing Wandsworth would be a blow to the ruling party.
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Hall, who was waiting for friends outside Clapham Junction station, said he hoped this would be the year the council went to work. “I was arrested during the lockdown by the police as I had met some friends. And Boris? Well, that’s a rule for them, a rule for the rest of us,” he said.
The government gatherings – at the Prime Minister’s office and residence in Downing Street and the nearby Cabinet Office – took place when Johnson’s government had restricted mixing between households, to reduce transmission of the virus and pressure on the national health system.
Among those most furious with Partygate are people who were barred from attending funerals during this time or seeing dying relatives in hospital.
Johnson’s loose relationship with the truth was already ingrained in many people’s thinking about him before he became prime minister. “Most people thought he was a liar to begin with,” said Ben Page, chief executive of polling firm Ipsos Mori. But Brits have a deep sense of fair play, Page said, and it’s the idea that lawmakers weren’t obeying their own rules that irritates.
Johnson, however, remains an outstanding politician, able to weather storms that could have brought down his predecessors.
He has come under heavy criticism, particularly from his own Conservative party. But he was spared a vote of no confidence in part because fellow Tories consider the mop-headed, back-to-back, Oxford-educated premier to be a proven performer.
Johnson was twice elected leftist mayor of London, despite his Tory credentials. His enthusiasm for Brexit helped secure a surprise victory in a referendum. And with Johnson as leader, the Conservatives, as members of the Conservative Party are known, won a landslide victory in 2019, giving them a historic majority of 80 seats in the House of Commons.
But if Tory lawmakers start to feel he won’t help them keep their jobs in the next parliamentary election, they might be eager to give him the boost.
In the only special election since the Partygate scandal broke, the Conservatives lost a parliamentary seat, representing the English town of North Shropshire, which they had held for nearly 200 years.
Ahead of Thursday’s local elections, Johnson was on the campaign trail, hitting towns in northern England and television studios in the south, insisting he was an asset to his party.
But the Tories are behind Labor by around five to eight percentage points.
“Johnson is pretty unpopular,” Page said. “If the local election results are terrible, that will encourage the rebels who want him out. But first they have to find someone else.
Johnson is helped by the fact that there is no obvious successor waiting in the wings.
The Conservative Party’s plan B, Chancellor Rishi Sunak, saw his chances dwindle after a scandal involving his wife’s taxes and after he too was hit with a Partygate fine.
Other names sometimes mentioned – Liz Truss, Jeremy Hunt, Tom Tugendhat – are not considered proven.
Johnson’s supporters, even the most reluctant, have argued that now is not the time to replace a prime minister because Britain and Johnson play an outsized role in supporting Ukraine.
“Britain changed leaders in both World War I and World War II,” noted Tony Travers, a policy expert at the London School of Economics. He added: “Most voters are much more driven by domestic politics than by foreign affairs… the cost of living and health services are at the top of people’s minds.”
Tim Farron, a Liberal Democrat opposition member, told the House of Commons that Conservative Party members were ‘too ashamed’ to defend the prime minister, ‘but too weak to sack him’.
He accused the Conservatives of “shamefully using the suffering of the Ukrainian people as an excuse not to act”.