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Boris Johnson squeaks through again as his party fractures

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LONDON — If squeezing through tight spots is Boris Johnson’s specialty, he has just managed to do it again. 

The Conservatives suffered some painful losses at the first set of local elections since their leader became tangled up in the partygate scandal, but there are enough positives to keep Johnson safe at the top for now. 

This was the prime minister’s first electoral test since he was fined by police for attending lockdown-busting parties in Downing Street.

In London, the historically Tory Westminster and Wandsworth councils fell to the Labour Party, as did Barnet. Labour also took control of Southampton in the southwest and Cumberland in the northwest, enabling the main opposition party to boast it was not just a London thing. 

But beyond this, the Conservatives held on or improved their showing in parts of the North East and Midlands — crucial battlegrounds for the next election, such as Sunderland, Hartlepool, Nuneaton and Sandwell.

The consensus among Conservative MPs — who are the ones with the power to oust Johnson — was that the results did not deliver anything which would really put the prime minister in jeopardy. 

One Tory critic of the prime minister said his colleagues outside London were “upbeat” and there were some noising off, “but I can’t see it building a head of steam over the weekend.”

Another MP said the loss of Wandsworth had been widely predicted but the Conservative vote had held up “where it mattered” in the places that shifted toward them at the 2019 general election. 

Bad signs

Johnson may not be in immediate danger, but for a prime minister previously loved by his party as a vote winner, it was not a good result. Some in his party warned Thursday’s losses were symptomatic of a fracturing Tory vote that the prime minister should ignore at his peril.

David Simmonds, a Tory MP in the northwest London constituency bordering Johnson’s own, said “he needs to find a way to restore confidence in the government” and “a change of leader would be one of them.”

An outgoing Conservative councilor in Westminster said recent tax rises “have been a challenge with the nature of people who vote Conservative here,” he said. “What’s the strategy? Do we double down on the red wall and expect to lose more seats in London and the commuter belt?”

British Prime Minister and Conservative Party Leader Boris Johnson | Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Former party leader Iain Duncan Smith, whose seat is in outer north London, called for a “reset” in order to “lower the tax burden.”

Another Conservative veteran said: “There aren’t going to be MPs standing in front of the television this morning saying ‘I’m going to send in a letter’ [calling for him to go] but the foundations of Boris’s leadership are weakened.”

The “shine” had come off Johnson with voters, the same person claimed, with a long list of hurdles ahead in the form of potential further partygate fines from the police; the conclusion of an investigation into the scandal by top civil servant Sue Gray; by-elections in Wakefield and Tiverton which could see the Tories losing two MPs; and a parliamentary investigation into Johnson.

Meanwhile, the grim outlook for the British economy will not help the party which usually relies on its credentials as a safe pair of hands.

These comments all speak to the current pressure being exerted on the electoral coalition which handed Johnson his overwhelming victory in 2019, keeping the affluent Tory heartlands and winning over post-industrial Brexit-supporting areas for the first time.

Pollster and Conservative peer Robert Hayward pointed to “the long shadow of Brexit,” highlighting that particularly Tory Remainers who had voted for Johnson last time to keep Jeremy Corbyn out would now be more willing to lend their votes to Labour or the Lib Dems — or abstain. 

While Johnson’s ballot box appeal may be wobbling, the Conservatives will take comfort that he is not exactly being eclipsed by Labour leader Keir Starmer. Away from London, Conservative seats have fallen more unevenly to Liberal Democrats and Greens, and not just to Labour. 

Labour Party leader Keir Starmer arrives to congratulate winning Labour Councillors at StoneX Stadium on May 6, 2022 in Barnet, England. | Hollie Adams/Getty Images

This means that while the Tories may be experiencing a strain on their electoral coalition, there’s no clear path to a Labour victory at the next election either.

The news that Starmer is now himself being investigated over a possible COVID rule breach may serve to dissipate the impact of partygate further.

And one Tory former minister suggested a different interpretation of the repeated knocks faced by the prime minister. “Each time he clears another hurdle it chips away at his detractors as well. In the longer run, the thing that will ensure he survives may be the very fact of his continuing survival.”

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