Boris Johnson squeaks again as his party falls apart – POLITICO

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LONDON – If squeezing through tight spots is Boris Johnson’s specialty, he’s just done it again.

The Conservatives have suffered some painful losses in the first local elections since their leader became embroiled in the Partygate scandal, but there are enough positives to keep Johnson safe at the helm for now.

This was the Prime Minister’s first election test since he was fined by police for attending lockdown busting parties at Downing Street.

In London, the historic councils of Tory Westminster and Wandsworth fell to the Labor Party, as did Barnet. Labor also took control of Southampton in the south-west and Cumberland in the north-west, allowing the main opposition party to brag that it was not just a London affair.

But beyond that, the Conservatives have maintained or improved their performance in parts of the North East and Midlands – key 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 delivered nothing that would put the prime minister in real danger.

A Tory critic of the Prime Minister said his counterparts outside London had been “optimistic” and there had been some noise “but I can’t see it building steam over the weekend”.

Another MP said Wandsworth’s loss was widely predicted but the Conservative vote has held “where it matters” in the places that would have shifted to them in the 2019 general election.

Bad omens

Johnson may not be in immediate danger, but it wasn’t a good result for a PM previously loved by his party as a vote-winner. Some in his party warned Thursday’s losses were symptomatic of a brittle Tory vote that the Prime Minister should ignore at his peril.

David Simmonds, a Tory MP in the north-west London constituency that borders Johnson’s own, said “he needs to find a way to restore confidence in government” and “a change in leadership would be one of them”.

An outgoing Conservative councilor in Westminster said recent tax hikes “have challenged the nature of people voting Conservative here,” he said. “What’s the strategy? Do we double 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, based in far north London, called for a “fresh start” to “reduce the tax burden”.

Another Conservative veteran said: “This morning, no MPs are going to stand in front of the TV and say, ‘I’m going to send a letter’. [calling for him to go] but the fundamentals of Boris’ leadership have been weakened.”

The “shine” has come from Johnson voters, the same person claimed, with a long list of hurdles in the form of possible further police party-gate fines; the completion of an investigation into the scandal by senior official Sue Gray; by-elections in Wakefield and Tiverton in which the Tories could lose two MPs; and a parliamentary inquiry into Johnson.

Meanwhile, the bleak outlook for Britain’s economy will not help the party, which normally relies on its credentials as a safe pair of hands.

These comments all speak to the current pressures being placed on the electoral coalition that gave Johnson his overwhelming victory in 2019, preserved the prosperous core Tory areas and conquered post-industrial, Brexit-supporting areas for the first time.

Pollster and fellow Conservative Robert Hayward pointed to “the long shadow of Brexit”, stressing that Tory Remains in particular, who voted for Johnson last time to keep Jeremy Corbyn out, would now be more willing to cast their votes for Labor or the To lend Lib Dems – or not.

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

Labor Party leader Keir Starmer arrives at the StoneX Stadium in Barnet, England on May 6, 2022 to congratulate the victorious Labor councillors. | Hollie Adams/Getty Images

This means that while the Tories are putting pressure on their electoral coalition, there is also no clear path to a Labor victory in the next election.

The news that Starmer is now himself under investigation for a possible COVID rule breach could serve to further diffuse Partygate’s impact.

And a former Tory minister proposed a different interpretation of the repeated beatings the PM has faced. “Every time he overcomes another hurdle, it hits his critics too. In the longer term, the fact that ensures its survival may be the fact that it survives continuously.” Boris Johnson squeaks again as his party falls apart - POLITICO

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