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Pressure On Johnson Mounts As Tories Humbled In Local Elections – OpEd

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By Zaid M. Belbagi *

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Amid a cost of living crisis, recurring scandals and a mixed response to the pandemic, Britain’s ruling Conservative Party was always ripe for defeat in last week’s local elections. After 12 years in Downing Street, polling gave the public an important opportunity to register their disappointment with the current government. London’s affluent Westminster, as well as leafy Wandsworth and Barnet, all “true blue” areas, surprised many as they chose the Labour Party. With a general election not due until December 2024, many are now posing the question of how long Prime Minister Boris Johnson will be able to hold his position amid such clear public frustration.

Johnson’s premiership has been under strain for several months. The once loveable rogue’s characteristic dismissal of serious matters in favor of the light-hearted has now come to characterize a perceived culture of mismanagement at No. 10. For the best part of a year, high-profile resignations, a steady stream of leaks from inside his Cabinet and what seemed at times to be a haphazard response to the pandemic have characterized his time in office for many.

He has, however, muddled through, heaving the country out of its last lockdown earlier than the rest of the world and leading a record-breaking vaccination program, while providing a blueprint for the international community on how to return to relative normality. To his supporters within the party, this and the fact that he had an 80-plus-seat working majority and had delivered Brexit was enough to continue to support their leader. That was, of course, until what has been dubbed “partygate.”The revelation that Downing Street staff indulged in routine late-night parties while the rest of the country was under strict lockdown — and when even the Queen chose to mourn the death of her husband of 73 years alone (rather than flout the guidelines) — has been a weeping wound for Johnson and his Cabinet. The initial denial, then obfuscation and eventually police involvement in what has become a criminal matter brought the ambivalence that had once charmed voters to the fore, allowing the government’s opponents to target a culture of double standards within the government, which has now resulted in a major electoral setback.

Johnson’s supposed lack of seriousness about the responsibilities of his office was given brief respite as he rose to the occasion of the Ukraine war, leading the free world’s diplomatic and lethal support of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s struggle against Russia’s invasion. This was short-lived, however, as Johnson ended last week facing the wrath of senior party members, who are frustrated by his leadership and doubtful about his usefulness as an electoral asset in the aftermath of the dismal local election results. The loss of almost 500 seats has been nothing short of a humbling for the party. Despite many voters being broadly happy with government policy, partygate has hung heavily over the prime minister and the public have used this opportunity to express themselves.

Though these elections were only local, they offered an important barometer of public opinion. In Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein scored a landslide, raising the real prospect of a referendum on a united Ireland, while in Scotland the Tories dropped into third place behind the dominant Scottish National Party and a resurgent Scottish Labour. For a party that is officially known as the Conservative and Unionist Party, the fact that the PM presided over elections that brought Scotland and Northern Ireland closer to leaving the Union than ever before will be a real concern for even the most ardent supporters of the government.

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Over the past year, several Conservative MPs have registered their displeasure by submitting letters of no confidence in him, but they have not reached the threshold required to prompt a leadership election and Johnson has remained at the helm. On the back of last week’s election results, his position will be less secure.

Though the Conservatives are hoping to extend their time in power nationally for another term at the next general election, pressure is mounting on the prime minister, so much so that it remains to be seen whether Johnson will lead the party into those elections. Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi urged Tory MPs not to move against the prime minister, maintaining that he remains “an asset to the party,” alluding to the clear campaigning and oratory skills for which Johnson is renowned. He did, however, warn that the Tories “must do better.”

Going forward, Johnson will clearly need to find a way to restore confidence in the government, given how prominently the flouting of lockdown regulations and perceived culture of indifference featured among voters. Though the opposition Labour Party did well in London, it had mixed results nationwide. Nevertheless, the Conservatives will have to engage in a serious change of direction if they are to extend their time in power beyond the next general election.

• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the GCC.

Arab News

Arab News is Saudi Arabia's first English-language newspaper. It was founded in 1975 by Hisham and Mohammed Ali Hafiz. Today, it is one of 29 publications produced by Saudi Research & Publishing Company (SRPC), a subsidiary of Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG).

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