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Boris Johnson Blamed as Tories Lose Seats in U.K. Council Elections

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 5/6/2022 Kitty Donaldson

(Bloomberg) --

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Boris Johnson’s Conservatives shed seats across England and lost three London strongholds, but the prime minister appears to have avoided the scale of disaster in Thursday’s local elections that might have triggered a fresh bid by members of his party to replace him.

With more than half of councils reporting results, the U.K. governing party had lost about one in six of its seats. That is far from some of the more dire predictions ahead of the polls, which typically give voters the chance to lodge a mid-term protest against the government. Electoral Calculus had projected the Tories would lose about a third of their seats. 

@CllrSimonHogg! pic.twitter.com/RQT1KvZZyn

— Sadiq Khan (@SadiqKhan) May 6, 2022 England Local Elections 2022 Results | Labour has so far gained three London councils from the Conservatives © Bloomberg England Local Elections 2022 Results | Labour has so far gained three London councils from the Conservatives

The Tories lost control of Wandsworth Council -- an iconic local authority which has been Conservative-run since 1978 -- as well as Westminster, where the Houses of Parliament are based. They also also ceded power to the main opposition Labour Party in Barnet, and in the southern city of Southampton.

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But mixed results overall will provide some solace for Johnson, who came into the vote under pressure following a series of missteps -- including the “partygate” scandal in which he became the first sitting premier to be fined for breaking the law -- that have damaged support for the Tories.

That’s on top of voter concerns about a cost-of-living crisis underlined by gloomy Bank of England forecasts on Thursday’s polling day.

Having fended off efforts by some of his MPs to oust him just weeks ago, the pressure was on Johnson to show them he’s still the leader they want heading into the next national vote, due by 2024 at the latest. Even though some of the pressure on him has abated as focus shifted to Ukraine, an especially bad result could have triggered another rethink. 

‘Tough Night’


Video: Boris Johnson apologises to MPs in Parliament over partygate fine (Evening Standard)

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That looks unlikely to be the case as things stand, based on the results dribbling through on Friday. Cabinet minister Brandon Lewis on Friday was one of several lawmakers who insisted on Friday Johnson remains the right person to lead the party. 

“This has been a tough night for Conservatives in some parts of the country, and in other parts of the country we’re actually moving forward,” Johnson told Sky News. “The lesson is that we’ve got to get on with the stuff that matters,” he said, citing investing in infrastructure and increasing the numbers of nurses and police officers in the U.K.

Council seats are being counted Friday in Scotland, Wales and many parts of England, while there are also elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly. The unionist DUP and republican Sinn Fein are vying for the chance to nominate the next first minister.

The Tories were boosted by the fact Labour failed to make emphatic gains, their successes in London notwithstanding. The opposition party has made a “slight net loss” outside the capital, according to John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde.

“Labour can’t win Westminster Parliament by simply winning Westminster council,” he told the BBC.

Thatcher’s Favorite

Still, there are plenty of worrying signs for Johnson’s party as it looks ahead to a general election. The losses of Westminster, which has always voted Tory, and Wandsworth, are significant setbacks. Wandsworth was former premier Margaret Thatcher’s favorite council for having the lowest rate of local taxes. 

Johnson was also repeatedly blamed by local Tories for the losses they sustained. “It is not just partygate, there is the integrity issue,” John Mallinson, the outgoing Tory leader of Carlisle City Council, told BBC News. “I just don’t feel people any longer have the confidence that the prime minister can be relied upon to tell the truth.”

In Portsmouth, where the Tories lost four seats, the leader of the Conservative group Simon Bosher said Johnson should “take a good, strong look in the mirror” because “those are people that are actually bearing the brunt on the doorstep of behavior of what’s been going on in Westminster.”

Many of the English seats up for grabs were last contested in 2018 during a period of Brexit chaos. That was the high-water mark for Labour under previous leader Jeremy Corbyn, leaving them with more limited scope to make gains this time, because they’re defending far more seats than the Tories. 

Southern Threat

That has opened the door for the Liberal Democrats to make gains, building on momentum in the Conservative Party’s traditional heartlands after recent by-election successes in North Shropshire and Chesham and Amersham.

As of Friday morning, the Liberal Democrats had gained more seats than Labour. In West Oxfordshire, home to former Tory Prime Minister David Cameron’s old parliamentary seat, the Conservative Party lost control of the council after the Liberal Democrats won four seats.

The trend is likely to worry Conservative strategists, given some prominent ministers including Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab hold parliamentary seats that will be key Liberal Democrat targets in a general election.

Tory lawmakers in southern England have long complained that Johnson’s focus on the northern seats he took from Labour in 2019 risks alienating traditional Conservative voters.

Still, there’s no sign that angry Tory MPs have the numbers to try to oust them, given it would take 54 of them -- or 15% of the total in Parliament -- to force a vote of no confidence in his leadership, and at least half of them to topple him.

Johnson is not in the clear, especially as the police may fine him again over “partygate” and the cost of living crisis is not going away. But Friday’s results appear unlikely to be the flash point the prime minister may have feared.

(Updates with Johnson comment in eighth paragraph)

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