On 5 May, people in the UK were called to vote at the local elections held across England, Scotland and Wales. The outcome of these elections will not only shape the fate of local councils, but also the country’s future politics as a whole. Local elections allowed the voters to have their say and gave a good indication of the general mood towards the current political scene, the government and the Prime Minister. According to experts, Conservatives entered the elections facing a big challenge, as voters expressed their opinions on the local issues, the partygate scandal, the rising cost of living, as well as on the invasion of Ukraine and the actions of the government.
Days before the elections it seemed that England was split in two: a growing divide powered, in particular, by the scandals involving No10 and the increasing cost of living that could seriously sink the Tories.
The last two years, since the start of the pandemic, have put to the test the abilities of PM Johnson and the Tories, to rule the country and let it out of the crisis as soon as possible. Unfortunately, Conservatives faced one of their toughest electoral tests, especially in the capital, because of the “partygate”. By attending several parties held at Downing Street during the lockdown and consequently breaching Covid rules, MPs and the Prime Minister himself, lost voters’ trust. As a result of these violations, Boris Johnson has also become the first British prime minister to face criminal sanctions, but what seems to have made voters change their minds, has been the fact that Johnson lied repeatedly to his MPs and the people. A businesswoman from Tooting said that if only he had held his hands up and admitted he made a mistake, he may have still had some support, instead, he lied and lied and this will have a negative impact on the outcome of the elections.
Nevertheless, it seemed that the cost of living crisis was an even bigger issue for voters and it has been pivotal in deciding the outcome for Tories. All around the world, this crisis is strongly influencing politics, and even without partygate, Tories would have still found themselves in a difficult position. As shown by a polling published on YouGov 67% of voters had doubts about how the government has been handling economic issues lately. According to the polling in question, voters were more worried about the cost of living crisis than the partygate scandal (only 31% said to be worried about lockdown parties), with big concerns over rising inflation and energy prices.
On the other hand, the Ukraine war positively influenced the voters’ choices for Thursday’s elections, as people felt relatively satisfied by the government’s actions regarding the issue. According to the Ipsos survey for The Standard, 58% of Britons have been backing the government and its response to Putin’s invasion; only 30% of people are not happy with Johnson’s choices and actions. In particular, this happened after the Prime Minister visited Ukraine and met with president Zelensky.
So, considering the outcome of these elections, what will it mean for Boris Johnson’s leadership?
Before trying to answer this question, it is interesting to see how Labour and Tories are currently spread across England. Labour, who was going into the election with the strongest public support (40%) – as the PM’s approval rating reached an all-time low of 28% last January – is now controlling 74 councils across Britain. On the other hand, the Tories, who had the highest number of councillors across the country and also had the majority in 45 of the councils, which are all outside of the North of England, were set to lose nearly 550 seats, in what would have been the party’s “worst performance since Tony Blair led Labour in the 1990s”. Being supported only by 34% of voters, Tories were meant to hold on in smaller towns and former industrial heartlands in the North and the Midlands. They are now controlling 35 councils in Great Britain.
However, the big test for the Conservative party and for Johnson has been the London borough council elections, which accounted for more than 4 in 10 of all English seats at play.
On the day of the elections, of the 32 London borough councils, Tories held 7, while 3 more were held by Liberal Democrats, 1 was under no overall control and the 21 remaining were held by the Labour party. On Friday morning the results showed that Labour gained Wandsworth, Barnet and Westminster, which were three flagship boroughs for the Conservative party, in particular, Westminster has been always blue, since the council’s creation in 1964.
This damaging defeat has confirmed the overall idea that Johnson is nothing more than a liability at this point. People started to lose their trust in the Prime Minister and said he was a different person at the beginning, someone who wanted a “young, diverse and internationally connected population”. Once, he was pro-immigration and liberal, now he is the Prime Minister ready to send migrants to Rwanda. Councilor Barry Rawlings said that probably many people decided to just give up voting because they feel alienated from No10 and disappointed in the Prime Minister. The results of the latest elections have painted a vivid picture of the current mood of the nation. It is not only the defeat in London but also losing control over Southampton and the Brexit stronghold, Cumberland, that has been a bad sign for the Tories and in particular for Johnson. However, despite having lost more and more supporters among the population and the Tory backbenchers, it seems that it is still not enough to push the other MPs into attempting again to challenge Mr Johnson’s leadership and remove him.