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UK Conservatives lose key strongholds in local vote as pressure mounts on Johnson

Labour takes Barnet in what MP calls ‘sea change’ in Jewish voters’ attitudes; PM feels strain of ‘partygate,’ rising living costs, sexual misconduct allegations against lawmakers

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits the Field End Infant school, in South Ruislip, London, on May 6, 2022, following the local government elections. (Daniel Leal/Pool via AP)
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits the Field End Infant school, in South Ruislip, London, on May 6, 2022, following the local government elections. (Daniel Leal/Pool via AP)

Britain’s governing Conservatives suffered local election losses Friday in their few London strongholds and other parts of the UK — results that will pile more pressure on British Prime Minister Boris Johnson amid ethics scandals and a worsening economic picture.

Voting held Thursday for thousands of seats on more than 200 local councils decided who will oversee garbage collection and the filling of potholes, but was also an important barometer of public opinion ahead of Britain’s next national election, which must be held by 2024.

The left-of-center opposition Labour Party, which has been out of power nationally since 2010, won control of Wandsworth, Barnet and Westminster, three London boroughs long held by the Conservatives, and also made gains in Wales and Scotland, as well as some regions of England.

Barnet, which has a large Jewish population, was seen as a key win for the party — Labour MP Carolyn Harris told the Jewish Chronicle that the result “cannot be underestimated.”

Harris said the result marks a “sea change” in party leader Keir Starmer’s bid to regain the trust of Jewish voters after the party was rocked by an antisemitism scandal under previous hard-left leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Starmer, visiting Barnet, hailed what he called “a big turning point.”

Britain’s main opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer arrives at a polling station, in London, to cast his vote in local elections, on May 5, 2022 (Daniel Leal/AFP)

Johnson’s party also lost ground to the centrist Liberal Democrats in the Conservatives’ southern England heartlands, where many middle-class voters are opposed to Brexit — a cause Johnson championed — and dismayed by lockdown rule-breaking by the prime minister and sexual misconduct allegations against other senior Tories.

With results in from most districts in England, Scotland and Wales, the Conservatives had lost more than 450 council seats and lost control of 10 local authorities to either Labour or the Liberal Democrats.

“We are hemorrhaging support in parts of the country. There’s some serious issues going on,” said Conservative lawmaker Tobias Ellwood.

The election came after months of turmoil for Johnson, in which he became the first prime minister to be sanctioned for breaking the law in office. He was fined 50 pounds ($62) by police for attending his own surprise birthday party in June 2020 when lockdown rules barred social gatherings.

“The issue of ‘partygate’ kept coming up as a reason why many Conservative supporters were staying at home or were switching to a protest vote,” said Conservative lawmaker David Simmonds.

A protester holds a sign showing British Prime Minister Boris Johnson as he stands in front of the entrance to Downing Street in London, on April 13, 2022 (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

Johnson has apologized but denies knowingly breaking the rules. He faces the possibility of more fines over other parties — police are investigating a dozen gatherings — and a parliamentary investigation into whether he misled lawmakers about his behavior.

The prime minister tried to shrug off the losses as midterm blues.

“We had a tough night in some parts of the country,” Johnson said. “But on the other hand, in other parts of the country, you are still seeing Conservatives going forward and making quite remarkable gains in places that haven’t voted Conservative for a long time, if ever.”

In some comfort to the Conservatives, Labour did not make big gains outside of the capital, especially in working-class northern England — areas that Johnson successfully wooed in the 2019 election with promises to improve local economies and opportunities after Britain’s exit from the European Union.

John Curtice, a professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, said the results showed that London is “very much a one-party Labour fiefdom.”

“But outside of London… this isn’t quite the degree of progress they might have anticipated.”

Labour’s national campaign coordinator, Shabana Mahmood, said the results showed Labour was building a solid foundation to regain power after four successive national election defeats.

Under Starmer’s predecessor, Corbyn, fighting between Labour’s left-wing and more centrist wings roiled the party, which suffered its worst election defeat in more than 80 years to Johnson’s Conservatives in 2019.

Illustrative: Keir Starmer, left, and Jeremy Corbyn at the House of Commons in London, on Monday, November 26, 2018 (House of Commons/PA via AP)

In Northern Ireland, voters were electing a new 90-seat Assembly, with polls suggesting the Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein could win the largest number of seats and the post of first minister, in what would be a historic first. Full results there are not expected until Saturday, but early returns showed Sinn Fein increasing its vote share to become the most popular party, besting the long-dominant Democratic Unionist Party.

Across the UK, election campaigns were dominated by the increasing prices for food and fuel, which have sent household bills soaring.

Opposition parties have demanded that the Conservative government do more to ease the cost-of-living crunch — driven by the war in Ukraine, disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic and economic aftershocks from Brexit.

The prime minister also faces discontent within his own party, and the election losses could convince some Conservatives to try to replace Johnson with a less tarnished leader.

Party Chairman Oliver Dowden acknowledged there had been “challenging headlines for the past few months.”

But he said, “Labour are certainly not on the path to power and I believe that Boris Johnson does have the leadership skills, in particular, the energy and the dynamism, that we need during this difficult period of time.”

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