By Theo Roose
In the wake of the Partygate scandal and the growing cost of living crisis, the Conservatives had been braced for a difficult set of results in the local elections, which were seen as a litmus test for Boris Johnson’s leadership.
After facing calls to resign over his conduct in Downing Street during the Covid-19 pandemic, the Prime Minister will have hoped to convince his MPs that he remains the right person to lead the country. Having lost 485 councillors across England, Scotland and Wales, this may prove to be a challenge, as the electorate expressed its dissatisfaction with Boris Johnson’s premiership.
Though this result has not produced the leadership challenge that some had predicted, it is no secret that the Conservatives appear distant from the 80-seat majority they secured back in the 2019 general election. Calculations vary, but based on these polls, there are questions as to whether they would even remain the largest party were a general election to be held now.
One suggestion as to why Boris Johnson’s MPs chose not to move against him is because Labour had an underwhelming election night themselves, gaining 108 councillors but failing to make significant progress in ‘Red Wall’ seats, despite symbolic gains in London. The government is at risk, but Sir Keir Starmer has a long way to go before he can expect to win the keys to Number 10, somewhat softening the blow for the Conservatives.
However, it can be argued that at the moment, Labour is not the greatest threat to the Conservatives. The Liberal Democrats, on the other hand, gained 224 councillors overall, mostly from former Conservative areas. Though the Liberal Democrats did not perform well in 2018 when these seats were last contested, they are fast emerging as a serious challenge to a series of prominent southern MPs, including cabinet minister Dominic Raab. Their success could potentially help tip the balance of power in Labour’s favour.
Though their spokespeople are right to talk in moderate terms, these results show that support for the Conservative party is at its weakest level in years. It faces genuine competition across the country, as Labour and the Liberal Democrats recover from their recent electoral difficulties, respectively stemming from Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and the aftermath of the coalition government.
As the cost of living crisis continues to put pressure on household finances, surveys suggest that the government is failing to convince voters of its key policies. An April 2022 YouGov poll shows that 38% of people think a Labour government would currently do a better job of levelling-up areas outside the South East than the Conservatives would, despite this standing as their flagship policy. Fears of an oncoming recession fuelled by high inflation rates do not indicate any improvements in the near future.
Approval of the handling of the situation in Ukraine remains positive, demonstrating some areas of continued support, but this has no direct impact on most of the electorate. In times of economic hardship, the government is often the first to be blamed.
Boris Johnson’s leadership is not doomed. Though he currently faces a great many challenges, his track record shows he has a remarkable knack for maintaining the support of both his party and his voters in times of difficulty, and the country is still split in opinion polls, presenting a clear opportunity to win back a firm position come the next general election.
However, with the Metropolitan Police investigation into Downing Street breaches of lockdown rules now complete, the infamous Sue Gray report just published, another threatening blow to the Prime Minister’s position, and talk of an electoral pact between Labour and the Liberal Democrats could threaten the party as a whole. In the long term the Conservatives have clear potential to re-consolidate their electoral status, but their leader must first survive his short-term challenges.
Image: Michelle Donolan Chippenham via Flickr