Threats to Johnson loom with potential seat losses in local elections

Conservatives brace for setbacks as candidates distance themselves from party

Britain’s Conservative party is braced for the loss of hundreds of council seats in local elections on Thursday that could revive threats to Boris Johnson’s leadership. All council seats in Scotland and Wales and about a quarter of English seats are up for grabs in the elections, which coincide with Northern Ireland’s Assembly election.

Many Conservative candidates are distancing themselves from the national party and avoiding any association with Mr Johnson with 400 standing as “Local Conservatives” in London.

"It speaks volumes that Boris Johnson's own Conservative candidates are ashamed to be associated with him and trying to pull the wool over voters' eyes. With no answers to the cost of living crisis, Tory candidates are trying to hide from their own government's record," Labour's deputy leader Angela Rayner said.

Value brands

The government is under pressure to do more to help poorer households to deal with rising prices, and agriculture minister George Eustice faced a storm of criticism when he suggested that people should buy value brands in supermarkets to keep their bills down. Mr Johnson refused to endorse the suggestion but he insisted his government was taking the right action to deal with the crisis.

“We are helping in the immediate term, £22 billion package, £9.1 billion going on fuel alone, all sorts of measures which people may know about, cutting your council tax, giving you support for cold-weather payments and so on and extra money for councils. But the most important thing is to have a strong economy with high-wage, high-skill jobs,” he said.

“The best future for the country is to get through the tough patch that we have now, support people in any way that we can but remember . . . we are now seeing a lot of employment and people in high-wage, high-skilled jobs. That is a much better position to be in than we were in the 1980s or 1990s.”

South and Scotland

Labour's poll lead over the Conservatives may not be fully reflected in the results in England where many Conservative-held councils are not up for election. Many of the seats that are up for election were won by Labour in 2018 when Theresa May was in the throes of internal party battles over Brexit.

Conservative MPs will be watching anxiously how well the Liberal Democrats perform in the south of England and Scottish Conservatives fear that they will fall into third place behind Labour, while the Scottish National Party remains dominant in Scotland.

Mr Eustice acknowledged that Mr Johnson would be alert to the feeling among MPs about his leadership ahead of the elections.

“All prime ministers will always be very conscious of the mood in their parliamentary party because no government can get anything done unless it enjoys the support of the parliamentary party as a whole,” he said.

"So of course the prime minister will be thinking about these things. But for now, he's also making sure that we deal with some of the international challenges like the problems in Ukraine, that we give them the support they need, that we help steer our economy through this period where we're getting some inflationary pressures."

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is London Editor of The Irish Times