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London (AFP) – Voters head to the polls in Britain on Thursday, in a midterm test for the Conservative government that could determine the future of embattled Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
The local election results will be seen as a barometer of support for Johnson’s Tories nationwide, as well as an indicator of whether the opposition Labor Party poses a serious threat.
Johnson, 57, won a landslide victory in the December 2019 general election on a promise to break years of political deadlock and deliver Brexit – the country’s dividing departure from the European Union.
But his position has looked increasingly shaky, amid damaging claims about lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street and an inflationary surge that is squeezing voters’ incomes.
A police investigation last month saw him become the first UK prime minister to be fined for breaking the law while in office.
Furious Tory MPs, aware of the public outrage at double standards and denials, looked set to force a vote of no confidence in his leadership in January.
But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, in which Johnson showed hawkish support for President Volodymyr Zelensky, quelled any mutiny.
Cost of life
A beating for Johnson’s Tories on Thursday, however, could reignite calls for him to leave, bed down in a new leader for the next general election, which is due to be held by 2024.
“Partygate,” however, failed to prove the key issue for voters.
“What’s going to be very appealing to people is the cost of living: food is going up, energy is going up,” said one voter, who gave his name only as Bob, in Dudley, New York. central England.
“What he (Johnson) did was wrong, with partygate, they were more or less laughing at you,” the 76-year-old retired worker told AFP.
“But they should focus on the cost of living.”
Labor – the main national opposition – gained ground locally in 2018 as the Tories were in disarray following the Brexit vote two years earlier.
Keir Starmer, leader since 2020, hopes to reclaim power in the councils of Labor’s ‘Red Wall’ regions in England which turned Conservative blue in the last general election.
Polls indicate Labor will win the most seats in England, while the party wants to gain ground over the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) in Scotland and consolidate its hold on Wales.
Besides Johnson, the long-term future of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland could also be at risk this week.
Elections are also held for the power-sharing assembly in Belfast, with Sinn Fein widely tipped to become the biggest party.
A LucidTalk poll for the Belfast Telegraph on Friday put the Nationalists six points ahead of their nearest rivals, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
No pro-Irish nationalist party has ever been the biggest party in the British province’s 100-year troubled history.
Deirdre Heenan, professor of social policy at the University of Ulster, called it “a watershed moment in Irish politics”.
“It will be a radical change if a nationalist becomes prime minister,” she told AFP.
Sinn Fein – the former political wing of the IRA – has had a long-standing goal of staging a so-called border poll on the retention of British sovereignty over Northern Ireland.
He reduced his calls for Irish unity during the campaign, preferring instead to focus on anger at the rising cost of living and other local issues.
But DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson insists holding a border poll was “at the heart” of his rivals’ manifesto.
The prospect gives Johnson another constitutional headache, as the SNP promises to push ahead with plans for another independence referendum.
Scotland voted to stay in the three-century-old union with England and Wales in 2014, but Scottish opposition to Brexit has reignited the issue.
Brexit has also weighed heavily on Northern Ireland, with unionist parties fearing new trade deals with the EU could threaten its place in the union.
The DUP wants new checks on goods from mainland Britain removed, arguing it creates an Irish Sea border and sets Northern Ireland adrift from the rest of the UK, making a united Ireland more likely.
© 2022 AFP