Thursday’s local elections were widely billed as potentially all or nothing for the prime minister. If the Conservatives lose heavily, Tory MPs could conclude that Partygate has seriously damaged their electoral chances and launch a challenge to unseat him. On the other hand, if Tory losses do not appear to be higher than expected in the medium term, Johnson could be able to convince his colleagues to stay with him.
At first glance, the omens do not bode well for Boris Johnson. His party shows no signs of regaining the electoral advantage it had in this parliament until its integrity and ethics became the subject of controversy. On average, the Conservatives are currently six points behind Labour. That equates to a nine-point swing since the 2019 general election.
However, this week’s elections are very different from the general elections. Most of the seats in England were last contested in May 2018 when Theresa May tried to keep her fractious party together on Brexit while Jeremy Corbyn fended off accusations of anti-Semitism.
The Conservatives were marginally ahead in the polls, while the BBC’s extrapolation of local election results to the equivalent of a general election result put the two parties at 35 per cent each. This very different baseline means that the current national polls are pointing to only a three-point swing from Conservatives to Labor – a figure that polls of voting intent largely mirror.
That could well mean Tory losing a few hundred seats – but it doesn’t necessarily look like a tsunami threatening to sweep Johnson out of Downing Street.
Two other features of local elections could potentially come to the Prime Minister’s aid. First of all, not everyone votes – and the places with elections are disproportionately in the more urban and therefore less Labor-poor half of England. Last but not least, London votes this year (only every four years) and today the capital is a Labor Party fiefdom. The party already controls 21 of the 32 districts, while the Conservatives defend only seven.
Second, although Conservatives outside London defend control of nearly as many councils (34) as Labor (36), in most cases (unlike London) only a third of the seats are contested. Not only does this mean the result will feature disproportionately in London’s seat gains and losses lists – it accounts for over 40% of seats in England – but it also limits the chances of change of control.
Overall, the Conservatives will defend just 1,400 seats, while Labor are the current incumbents of 2,200. Even if the Tories were to lose one seat in four, that would still mean just 350 net losses – significantly fewer than in previous local elections.
Tory losses in overall control could prove particularly small on the ground – although they could include two icons in the capital. For years the Wandsworth Tories have pursued a low council tax regime and have repeatedly maintained control even when the party has struggled nationally. But it looks very vulnerable now. Another low-tax Tory council, Westminster, could be on the sidelines. A failure to retain those two Thatcher Councils, which the former Prime Minister never lost, would be a particularly painful loss.
We could also add Barnet (where Labor suffered from the 2018 row against anti-Semitism), Southampton, Newcastle-under-Lyme and Worcester. But the list couldn’t be much longer.
In Scotland, however, the Prime Minister faces a challenge. The whole country votes – but with a proportional voting system that makes it very different for each party to gain control somewhere. With the whole country voting at the same time (unlike in England), local elections serve as a mega opinion poll.
Crucially, the last election round was in 2017, not 2018 – when the Tories were so high in the polls that Theresa May had already called general elections. The party in Scotland went particularly well. She nearly doubled her share of the vote, her best result since 1982 at 25 percent, while beating Labor by five points. Here, Johnson’s party defends a high baseline.
The polls are not looking good for the Conservatives. They have ranked third behind Labor in every poll of voting intentions in Scotland since Christmas. If that happens, it will be the first time since 2016 that the Conservatives fail to claim second place and the role of the Union’s key advocates. But perhaps such a setback will not worry most Tory MPs as much as anything happening in England.
The most immediate difficulty that Thursday’s results will create for the Prime Minister, however, could come from Northern Ireland’s National Assembly elections. The dispute over the Northern Ireland Protocol negotiated by Johnson’s government, an agreement many claim creates a border across the Irish Sea, has fragmented the union community. In particular, this has led to a significant drop in support for the largest union party, the DUP.
The polls suggest that for the first time since the partition in 1922, a union party will no longer take first place in the vote. The DUP, at no more than 20 percent, lags far behind Sinn Féin at 26 to 27 percent. The DUP could win some seats if the party picks up lower preferences from the smaller union parties under the transferable vote system. Despite this, it is likely that as part of the Good Friday Agreement, Sinn Féin will be able to claim the post of First Minister and the DUP will cede the position of Deputy First Minister.
That’s a consolation prize that the DUP may not settle for unless the UK government, at least, repeals some of the protocol’s provisions. But that would not only anger Sinn Fein, it would also risk retaliation from the EU. Holding on to the keys of Downing Street is not the only political challenge facing the Prime Minister.
John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University and Senior Research Fellow at NatCen Social Research and The UK in a Changing Europe
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/analysis/how-local-elections-in-uk-could-make-or-break-boris-johnson-41616695.html How UK local elections could make or break Boris Johnson