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Opinion Boris Johnson has a chance to save his government

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson drinks tea at a street market in London on May 9. (Hollie Adams/Bloomberg)
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Last week’s British local elections were bad for Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party. But not so bad that he can’t recover before the next general election — if he shows ingenuity and resolve.

Britain’s annual elections for local races such as mayor and city councilor are often viewed as tests of the ruling party’s political strength. If the party in power holds roughly steady or even gains seats, it is considered strong; if it loses a significant number, it is considered weak. A prime minister can even be forced out if their party loses too badly, as happened to Theresa May after the Tories were wiped out in the 2019 local and European Union elections.

Johnson did not suffer a reverse of that magnitude, but the British electorate did punish the Tories in almost every region. The party lost about 500 council seats, roughly a quarter of those it held beforehand. It did especially poorly in traditional Tory regions in the south of England, where Liberal Democrats and Greens gained seats, and in London and Wales, where Labour was the prime beneficiary.

Those losses were not as large as in past elections. Yet the result could be the worst possible outcome for the Conservatives: a party wounded enough to stagger on but not so wounded as to force a change in leadership.

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It is also an opportunity for Johnson. The only party large enough to mount a serious challenge to the Conservatives, the Labour Party, struggled to win back seats in the Brexit-voting, working-class regions that had been its historical heartland but whose defection in 2019 elected Johnson. It gained only 22 seats out of thousands contested in England, almost all of those in London, where it is already strong. English voters, it seems, are willing to give Johnson a final chance to show he deserves their continued support.

His first task is to tackle inflation. Britain’s inflation rate hit 7 percent in March, the highest in 30 years, and it is becoming the primary political issue just like in the United States. YouGov’s monthly polls show that 74 percent of Britons think the government is doing a bad job addressing inflation, up from just 30 percent one year ago. Get rising prices under control, and Johnson’s ratings should start to rise.

That’s easier said than done. The Bank of England is following the U.S. Federal Reserve in raising interest rates, but Britain’s rate remains at a historically low 1 percent. These hikes are too small and too slow to push inflation downward quickly. Johnson can’t control the independent bank, but he can signal that he would tolerate faster and steeper increases. He should do so as often and as loudly as possible.

Johnson can also try to lighten the load on British consumers as inflation eats away at their standard of living. He should start by delaying or canceling a planned increase in the national insurance contribution. That’s Britain’s version of the Social Security payroll tax, and it was raised by 1.25 points in April. This will cost many middle-income Britons hundreds of pounds a year. Johnson should reverse course and suspend the tax hike for as long as inflation stays above a certain level. That will provide direct help to every British taxpayer.

He should also reduce Britain’s punishingly high taxes on gasoline. Britain charges 58 pence per liter — or about $2.78 per gallon — in fuel duties. It also levies a 20 percent value-added tax on both the gas tax and the price of fuel itself. As a result, taxes make up roughly half of the total fuel price. That puts the average price of unleaded fuel at $7.67 a gallon, giving Johnson lots of room to provide relief.

His government’s current policy — reducing the fuel tax by a mere 5 pence per liter — is much too small. Johnson should suspend the VAT entirely on gas until energy prices recede. That would cost his treasury a lot of money, but that’s the point. People need to see the government cares in a tangible way, and that means splashing cash.

So far, Johnson is not rising to the challenge. Tuesday’s Queen’s Speech, which provides the government’s plans for the forthcoming year, was remarkably unimaginative. This follows a similarly underwhelming reaction to the spring budget statement from Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, which also provided little tangible relief to suffering Britons. Perhaps Johnson is buying time for a big set of announcements this fall, or perhaps he’s just not up to the task.

Britain is our closest ally, and it’s always in our interest to have a strong and confident leader at the helm. The local elections gave Johnson a reprieve from months of scandal to show he can be that person. He needs to seize the moment before another winter of discontent convinces Britons it’s time for a change.