Boris Johnson in peril as Tories lose council seats
The Lib Dems and Labour enjoyed a local election surge that piled more pressure on the prime minister
TOBY HELM IS THE OBSERVER'S POLITICAL EDITOR; MICHAEL SAVAGE IS THE OBSERVER'S POLICY EDITOR; TOM WALL IS A NEWS REPORTER
Boris Johnson’s leadership faced fresh peril after senior Conservatives blamed him for losing swathes of the party’s southern heartlands to the Liberal Democrats and flagship London boroughs to Labour. In a punishing set of local elections for the Tories, the party lost hundreds of seats across the country, ceding control of Westminster and Wandsworth in London to Labour for the first time since the 1970s, and plunging to its worst position in Scotland for a decade. Conservative MPs and council leaders questioned Johnson’s leadership, demanding action to tackle the cost of living crisis and rebuild trust in the wake of the Partygate scandal after a damaging series of losses across the “blue wall” in Somerset, Kent, Oxfordshire and Surrey. However, the scale of the Tory backlash was tempered by a mixed picture for Labour, which showed progress, but not enough yet to suggest a landslide for Keir Starmer in a general election. Labour had a very strong result in London and took some southern councils. It pushed the Tories out of control in their only council in Wales, Monmouthshire, and took over as the party with the second largest vote share in Scotland, where the SNP remained dominant. But in the north of England and the Midlands, Labour struggled to make gains in “red wall” areas it had lost at or since the 2019 election, despite a convincing win on the new Cumberland council. Last Friday morning, as broadcasters, pollsters and political analysts tried to make sense of a mixed bag of early local election results, no one was clear who had performed the best. Boris Johnson was said to be in a buoyant mood when he sat down at his desk at 8.15am, believing the heat was off. While he could see his party had taken a beating, it seemed a Tory meltdown had been avoided. Keir Starmer was also cheery, outwardly at least, hailing his party’s conquest of the Conservatives in the London boroughs of Barnet, Westminster and Wandsworth, as “a turning point” for Labour. He was, however, glossing over less good news outside the capital. Meanwhile, Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey was declaring the elections “historic” for his party as it clocked up some decent gains. Twenty-four hours later, however, after the full picture emerged, and results from Scotland and Northern Ireland – both raising profound constitutional questions about the future of the UK – there was an altogether different sense about the local elections. The Tories had done far worse than it had first seemed, particularly in the south of England, while Labour had performed much better . “Shocking,” said one minister, adding that Johnson would not recognise that he had caused the problem. Some Conservative MPs in traditional Tory areas in the south are so angry and worried by the revolt among grassroots supporters they are again considering whether to oust him. London Tory MPs were set to meet this week. One said: “We had thought our people would stay at home and not vote. But they didn’t. They came out in anger to kill us.” Other Tory MPs were less sure, saying they feared a failed coup against Johnson could make matters worse. The central challenge for the PM of holding together his 2019 coalition of red wall voters and traditional Tories has been exposed in these elections as a potentially fatal problem. To add to Johnson’s woes is a revival of the Liberal Democrats, which gained pace last week and is also unnerving his backbenchers. The Lib Dems took councils in Conservative areas, including Somerset county council and Woking borough council, as they continued to fight back in the south-west and other rural areas where they were strong before the coalition in 2010. Davey described the results as “a tidal wave” that had defied his best expectations and led him to re-examine and expand the party’s general election ambitions. “We are going for the Conservatives,” he said. “We think they are absolutely ruining our country.” A BBC projection for the national vote now puts Labour on 35%, the Tories on 30% and the Lib Dems on 19%. Labour 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. The number of councillors elected in Scotland rose for every party except the Scottish Conservatives, who dropped 63. After 15 years in power, the SNP gained 22, Labour 20, the Lib Dems 20 and the Greens 16. With Sinn Féin's historic win in elections to the Northern Ireland assembly, Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon said the elections – which also saw a strong performance for Plaid Cymru in Wales – had raised “big questions” about the future of the UK. “There’s no doubt there are big fundamental questions being asked of the UK as a political entity right now,” Sturgeon said. “They’re being asked here in Scotland, they’re being asked in Northern Ireland, they’re being asked in Wales, and I think we’re going to see some fundamental changes to UK governance in the years to come. I am certain one of those changes is going to be Scottish independence.” R ather than strengthening Johnson’s position as he believed at first, last Thursday’s elections may have destabilised him further, bringing into the open many of the huge problems his government is responsible for. Labour has been overshadowed by problems over lockdown gatherings, with Starmer being investigated by Durham police for drinking a beer in an MP’s office last year. But Johnson’s premiership remains in great peril as Sue Gray prepares to publish her report on Partygate, and the Metropolitan police complete their investigation. Ominously for Johnson and the Tories, there are more electoral tests soon. The Lib Dems have already started campaigning in Tiverton and Honiton, where a byelection will be held next month after the resignation of Tory MP Neil Parish, who admitted looking at porn in parliament. The constituency includes the prosperous Devon town of Cullompton, normally safe Conservative territory. There, lifelong Tory voter Tim Cox said he was considering voting for a different party for the first time. “Johnson lied. It’s the bare-faced lies he’s told. ” Ryan Lacey-Mills, 34, who works in car sales, voted for Johnson in 2019 but now felt the PM was a spent force. He is also weighing up the offer from other parties. “Whether it is his fault or not, something needs a shakeup," he said. "It’s time for a change.” Johnson may be able to soldier on after last week's local elections, but whether he could survive a byelection defeat in a safe seat in a few weeks' time is another matter.