Tomorrow’s local elections are an important moment for Boris Johnson and the Conservatives.
The party performed well in last year’s local polls, winning councillors and councils across England. But one year on, they face considerably more challenges on a range of fronts, not least ‘Party-gate’ and a growing cost of living crisis. This backdrop is likely to present more of a test at the ballot box.
While these polls cannot be seen directly as a referendum on the Prime Minister’s leadership, they will set a tone for the year ahead. If his party performs poorly, Johnson’s premiership will come under further strain.
A complicated context for local polls
Rarely has a Prime Minister approached local elections with such a complex domestic and global backdrop.
Few words are needed to convey the importance of ’Party-gate’, and after months of words and accusations, finally the public will have a chance to deliver its verdict on events in Downing Street during the COVID lockdowns.
The war in Ukraine has, perhaps, taken some public focus off the Downing Street parties, and the crisis has seen Boris Johnson active on the world stage; a role which he relishes. Undoubtedly his response to the Ukraine crisis has rallied support for him domestically, but his state craft is unlikely to be a deciding factor tomorrow.
Much more of an issue at the ballot box will be the record inflation and soaring energy prices currently being suffered by every voter. The Government is under considerable pressure to provide real support to the public on the cost-of-living crisis. In the past week, both Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak have been branded as “out of touch” by the opposition and commentators, with their responses to calls to support struggling families across the country seen as lacking real substance.
This comes as the Government faces a balancing act on energy. Will it be able to walk the delicate tightrope on energy costs, security of supply and meeting its targets on net zero?
Their performance at the ballot box tomorrow may give us an answer, as most voters will have an interest in one, if not all, of these policy areas.
In particular, the results of the ‘red wall’ seats, which are amongst the communities hit hardest by the cost-of-living crisis, will be seen as key. If these voters, first won over to the Conservatives at the 2019 General Election, begin to desert the Tories, Johnson’s future begins to look far bleaker.
What does the Prime Minister need from tomorrow?
The Prime Minister’s primary aim tomorrow is to deny Labour the appearance of a government in waiting. The Daily Mail is reporting that the Conservatives could lose up to 550 council seats, in what would be their worst performance since 1996. On that occasion, the Tories’ struggles, and Labour’s performance, was another significant step on Tony Blair’s march to an election landslide in 1997.
While few commentators would compare Keir Starmer’s current position and electoral prospects with those of New Labour in the 1990s, a similar outcome tomorrow would begin positioning Labour as a genuine alternative government.
If that happens, Conservative MPs who may be wavering over ‘Party-gate’ may well decide that their personal political life depends on a change in Prime Minister, particularly as we are expecting the full report from senior civil servant Sue Gray into the events which took place in Downing Street.
With national issues continuing to dominate local conversations, these elections could prove to be the final blow to Johnson’s premiership.
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