Therese Raphael

Boris Johnson Has Partied His Way to a Midterm Thrashing

Britain’s Tories have been in power for a long time and incumbents generally get a midterm beating. So, of course, Boris Johnson is expecting a slapdown in local government elections on Thursday.

There are plenty of reasons for voters to deliver one. Historically, there is a pretty strong correlation between confidence in the economy and governing popularity. With inflation at a 30-year high and Britons feeling squeezed on all fronts, polls show the economy is the biggest concern voters have right now, well ahead of even health-care.

At least inflationary pressures are common to many other countries — and proving a drag on Joe Biden’s own knife’s edge midterm prospects. But Johnson and his Conservatives are carrying some added baggage. In what other legislature do you have dozens of lawmakers — 56, according to a Sunday Times report, which is 8% of the elected leaders making rules for the country — being investigated for sexual misconduct, including several cabinet ministers? Not all are Tory MPs, but there is plenty to give Tory voters pause. For voters who can keep up, this looks like heaps more evidence of an entitlement culture that is resented even more in leaner times.

Last month, Tory MP Imran Ahman Kahn was convicted of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy in 2008. Last week, Tory MP Neil Parish admitted to watching porn on his mobile phone in the House of Commons in a “moment of madness,” but only after two female MPs complained. Both men have resigned, leaving two by-elections ahead. A dozen female Conservative MPs and plenty of Westminster journalists have, meanwhile, shared tales of everything from misogynistic attitudes to harassment within the party and parliament more broadly. Not even Donald Trump’s mores-defying White House quite compares.

That makes for a pretty awkward election backdrop. Johnson’s government, and parliamentary leaders such as Speaker Lindsay Hoyle, are trying to find the appropriate response. It shouldn’t be rocket science. Having a proper human-resources department in parliament – instead of MPs employing staff directly and party “whips” acting as both enforcers of discipline and trying to play a pastoral role – would help. A 2019 independent inquiry suggested as much. But change in parliament comes at a glacial pace. While half of Labour MPs are female, only a quarter of Conservatives are.

How all these factors will play out in Thursday’s vote will be difficult to untangle, however. More than 6,000 councilors in 200 local authorities will be selected in England, Wales and Scotland, but while all the councils in Scotland and Wales (where the last local election was held in 2017) are up for grabs, only 144 of England’s 333 councils have elections and in many of them only a third of the seats are being contested.

Such midterm votes tend to track the popularity of the major parties but there are also local factors, from garbage collection and school places to the popularity of individual candidates (or in the case of Northern Ireland, divisions over governance and the direction of the union with Great Britain), that matter. The Liberal Democrats generally do better in local elections than in national elections and Greens would also be expected to do better. But it’s difficult to extrapolate from their showing.

In London, Labour already controls 21 of the 32 councils, and the Tories are only defending seven councils. That doesn’t mean the Tories won’t suffer, either from absolute losses or by losing key councils. As polling expert John Curtice told Bloomberg radio last week, a Tory loss in London’s Wandsworth Council – which has been held by the Tories since 1978 and pursued a Thatcherite agenda of low taxes and gentrification – would be a major symbolic defeat.

While the invasion of Ukraine, and Johnson’s close support for Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelenskiy, has helped blunt some criticism, the long-term impact of the partygate scandal is to undermine trust in government; an erosion that’s difficult to reverse. And there will be more to come. The full report into the breaking of lockdown rules by government officials is likely to be withering about the culture of exceptionalism.

How voters will respond to the latest sleaze revelations and allegations of misogyny is harder to gauge. While partygate is ultimately about trust and fairness, the latest reports, disclosures and convictions speak to expectations of public officials and to some extent reflect wide societal issues, which became more evident in the aftermath of the gruesome 2021 murder of Londoner Sarah Everard by a police officer. The party that has been in power since 2010 bears some responsibility for that culture, even if such problems long predate it.

The Tories have set expectations for this vote so low that anything short of a total wipeout will be spun as a victory of sorts. Losses will be accepted as a slice of humble pie and a raft of new measures announced. Until either the Tories see a viable substitute for Johnson, or voters view Labour as an acceptable government in waiting, danger isn’t imminent. But with inflation at a high and parliamentary standards sinking to a new low, the pressure will just keep building.