Boris Johnson sighed in relief – then the UK local election message took hold | Local elections

On Friday morning, as broadcasters, pollsters and political analysts tried to make sense of a jumble of preliminary results from the previous day’s local elections, it was unclear who had the better results. All the party leaders seemed happy enough and the political messages were hazy.

Residents of Downing Street said Boris Johnson was in good spirits as he sat down at his desk at 8.15am thinking the heat was off. He had said in a meeting with his advisers the day before that “we’re going to get our ass kicked”. But while he could see that his party had indeed taken a beating and lost seats, it appeared a Tory collapse had been averted and Labor was failing to regain support behind the red wall.

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Keir Starmer was also cheerful, at least outwardly, when he arrived in Barnet on Friday, hailing his party’s Tory conquest in that London borough, and even more impressively in Westminster and Wandsworth, as “a turning point” for the party labor.

Starmer, however, was glossing over some rather less good news outside the capital, as an early narrative slowly developed that Labor had failed. Meanwhile, Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey was declaring the election no less “historic” for his party, as it had recorded decent gains across the country.

Twenty-four hours later, however, after the full domestic table emerged and the results for Scotland and Northern Ireland – both of which raised deep constitutional questions about the UK’s future – , Thursday’s elections had a whole different meaning.

The Conservatives had actually done much worse than it looked before, particularly in the south of England, and had lost over 400 seats, while Labor had fared much better and won more of 250. “Shocking,” said a minister, adding that Johnson would not acknowledge he caused the problem. “[The PM] won’t care. We will first have to lose a general election.

This weekend, some Tory MPs in traditional Tory southern neighborhoods are so angry and worried about the southern revolt among their grassroots supporters that they are once again considering ousting him.

On Monday, Tory MPs in London will meet to discuss what to do. One said: “We thought our people would stay home and not vote. That’s what we were told. But they didn’t. They came out in anger to kill us.

Keir Starmer speaks to supporters in Barnet, North London, after Labor took control of the council. Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA

Another said: ‘There is a feeling amongst our constituents that we have forgotten about London and them, that all we care about is the red wall.

Other Tory MPs were less sure, saying they feared a failed coup would leave them worse off. “He’s so unpredictable – we want a clean kill and a clear alternative,” a senior Tory and Johnson critic said. “Johnson is the problem.”

The prime minister’s central challenge of holding together his 2019 coalition of Red Wall voters and mainstream conservatives has been exposed in this election as a potentially fatal issue.

Adding to Johnson’s woes – and an integral part of them – is a Liberal Democrat revival, which gained momentum on Thursday and is also riling up his backbench MPs. The Lib Dems took advice in Tory areas, including Somerset County Council and Woking Borough Council, as they continued to fight in the South West and other rural areas where they were strong before joining the coalition in 2010.

Addressing the Observer, Davey described the results as “a tidal wave” that defied his best expectations and caused him to re-examine and expand the party’s overall electoral ambitions. “We talked about the blue wall, but we extended it to the west of the country and to rural communities. This is more serious than it was when we won the Chesham and Amersham by-election last year… our battleground with them is starting to expand.

“We are going for the conservatives. We think they are absolutely ruining our country.

Data emerged later on Friday confirming the Lib Dem push and suggesting that Starmer could indeed lead the next government. The BBC’s projection for national vote share puts Labor at 35%, the Conservatives at 30% and the Liberal Democrats at 19%.

Labor also performed well in Scotland, pushing the Tories into third place and suggesting all is not lost for Starmer’s party north of the border. “It changed our mood,” said a shadow cabinet member, “when we saw what was happening north of the border.” The number of councilors elected in Scotland rose for all parties except the Scottish Conservatives, which fell by 63. After 15 years in power, the SNP increased its number by 22, Labor gained 20, the Lib Dems 20 and the Greens 16.

Cashiers are seated behind a clear screen.  Seven people on the other side of the screen, some holding clipboards.
Candidates and other party officials wait for the ballots to be counted in the election for Sunderland City Council. Photography: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

With Sinn Féin on course for a stunning victory in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was quick to point out that the election – which also saw a strong performance for Plaid Cymru in Wales – had raised “big questions”. on the very future of the United Kingdom “as a political entity”.

“Yes [Sinn Féin] to emerge as the largest party today in Northern Ireland, which seems very likely, will be an extraordinary outcome, and something that seemed impossible not so long ago,” Sturgeon said.

“There’s no doubt that big fundamental questions are being asked in the UK as a political entity at the moment. They’re being asked here in Scotland, they’re being asked in Northern Ireland, they’re being asked in Wales, and I think we are going to see fundamental changes in British governance in the years to come.I am sure one of those changes will be Scottish independence.

Sinn Féin’s ultimate goal – whose Northern Ireland leader Michelle O’Neill said the election was a “historic day” – is for Northern Ireland to leave the UK and become one country. with the Republic of Ireland.

The Northern Ireland Act 1998 – which followed the signing of the Good Friday Peace Agreement – says the UK ‘shall not cease to be without the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland voting in a ballot”. It also says the then Northern Ireland Secretary will agree to hold a poll if it appears “likely” that a majority of people want a united Ireland.

While opinion polls suggest that’s not likely in the near term, party leader Mary Lou McDonald said on Friday that planning for a unity referendum would come within a ‘five-year framework’ .

Some Tories blame Johnson and Brexit for straining the UK. A senior official suggested MPs act before it’s too late. “It’s really bad, they’re fucking the Union keeping it.”

This week, the Prime Minister hopes the Queen’s Speech will reassure both his own MPs and party members, as well as the country, that he is the right person to lead the nation. It will focus on measures to “grow the economy” and help people facing cost of living pressures such as energy prices, and include bills to capture what it sees as the “opportunities of Brexit”, including deregulation.

But rather than bolster his position as he initially believed, Thursday’s election may well have destabilized Johnson further, exposing many of the huge problems – Brexit and non-Brexit related – for which his government is responsible.

Labour’s progress on Thursday was overshadowed by its own issues over lockdown rallies, with Starmer now under investigation by Durham Police for drinking a beer in an MP’s office last year. But Johnson’s premiership remains in grave peril as civil servant Sue Gray prepares to publish her Partygate report and the Metropolitan Police complete their investigation.

Worryingly for Johnson and the Tories, there will soon be more election tests. The Lib Dems have already started campaigning in Tiverton and Honiton, where a by-election will be held next month following the resignation of Tory MP Neil Parish, who admitted watching pornography in parliament.

The constituency includes the thriving Devon town of Cullompton, normally safe Conservative territory. There, lifelong Conservative voter Tim Cox said he was considering voting for a different party for the first time. “It’s just the general behavior of the Conservative Party. It’s quite shocking – it’s appalling,” he said as he stopped in the main street. “Johnson lied. These are the outright lies he tells. For me, it’s all about personal character, whether you are credible or believable as the leader of the country. There are a few in the cabinet, including Johnson, who just aren’t.

There appears to be some desire for change in the constituency, which has been staunchly conservative since its inception in 1997. Ryan Lacey-Mills, 34, who works in car sales, voted for Johnson in 2019 but has now felt that the Prime Minister was a spent force. . It also evaluates the offer of the other parties. “[Johnson] has had its day. He made Brexit,” he said. “Whether it’s his fault or not, something needs to be revamped. It’s time for a change.”

Even those who are still considering voting for the Conservatives are struggling to generate much enthusiasm. Steven Morris, 69, thinks Johnson will have to leave eventually. He cannot forgive the parties that took place at No 10 when the country was in lockdown. ” I am asthmatic. I was actually locked up for two months when it all started – and the thought of them throwing parties really bothers me,” he says, cradling a wrapped portion of fish and chips. “I always thought the Tories had standards, but Boris doesn’t.”

As they watch Tiverton and Honiton, the Lib Dems have their blood in the air. Johnson may be able to continue after local elections on Thursday, but whether he could survive a by-election defeat in a safe seat in a few weeks is another matter entirely.

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