LONDON: Voters go to the polls in Britain on Thursday, in a mid-term test for the Conservative government that could determine beleaguered Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s future.
The local election results will be seen as a barometer of support for Johnson’s Conservatives nationally, as well as an indicator of whether the opposition Labour party poses a serious threat.
Johnson, 57, won a landslide general election victory in December 2019 on a promise to break years of political deadlock and deliver Brexit – the country’s divisive departure from the European Union.
But his position has looked increasingly fragile, because of damaging claims about lockdown-breaking parties at Downing Street and an inflationary surge that is squeezing voters’ incomes.
A police investigation last month saw him become the first British prime minister to be fined for breaking the law while in office.
Irate Tory MPs, mindful of public outrage at double standards and denials, had looked set to force a no-confidence vote in his leadership in January.
But Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine, during which Johnson has shown hawkish support for President Volodymyr Zelensky, took the heat out of any mutiny.
Cost of living
A drubbing for Johnson’s Tories on Thursday, though, could revive calls for him to go, to bed in a new leader for the next general election, which is due by 2024.
“Partygate”, however, has not proved the key issue for voters.
“What’s going to get folks a lot is the cost of living: food is going up, energy is going up,” said one voter, who gave his name only as Bob, in Dudley, central England.
“What he (Johnson) did was bad, with partygate, they were more or less laughing at you,” the 76-year-old retired factory worker told AFP.
“But they should focus on cost of living.”
Labour – the main opposition nationally – gained ground at the local level in 2018, with the Tories in disarray after the Brexit vote two years earlier.
Keir Starmer, leader since 2020, will be hoping to claw back power on councils in “Red Wall” Labour areas of England that turned Tory blue at the last general election.
Polling indicates Labour will win the most seats in England, while the party wants to gain ground on the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) in Scotland and consolidate its hold on Wales.
Apart from Johnson, the long-term future of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland may also be in jeopardy this week.
A LucidTalk poll for the Belfast Telegraph on Friday put the nationalists six points clear of their nearest rivals, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
No pro-Irish nationalist party has ever been the largest party in the British province’s troubled 100-year history.
Deirdre Heenan, professor of social policy at Ulster University, called it “a moment of inflection in Irish politics”.
“It will be a sea change if a nationalist becomes first minister,” she told AFP.
Sinn Fein – the former political wing of the IRA – has a longstanding aim to hold a so-called border poll on continued British sovereignty of Northern Ireland.
It has dialled down its calls for Irish unity during campaigning, instead preferring to focus on anger at the rising cost of living and other local issues.
But DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson insists holding a border poll was “right at the heart” of his rivals’ manifesto.
The prospect gives Johnson another constitutional headache, as the SNP is promising to push ahead with its plans for another independence referendum.
Scotland voted to remain in the three-centuries old union with England and Wales in 2014, but Scottish opposition to Brexit has revived the issue.
Brexit has weighed heavily on Northern Ireland too, with unionist parties concerned that new trading arrangements with the EU are threatening its place in the union.
The DUP wants new checks on goods from mainland Britain scrapped, arguing it creates an Irish Sea border and casts Northern Ireland adrift from the rest of the UK, making a united Ireland more likely.