LONDON — Prime Minister Boris Johnson was cheered with multiple standing ovations when he addressed the Ukrainian parliament this week. The Ukrainian town of Fontanka, near Odessa, is reportedly naming a street after him. And Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said his country “will always be grateful to Boris and Britain” for the support during the war.
But while the prime minister continues to tweet photos of himself walking with Zelensky through Kyiv last month, he isn’t being hailed as much of a hero back in Britain. His Conservative Party is expected to take a big hit in local elections across the country on Thursday, in what’s seen at least partly as a referendum on Johnson.
Voters have many things on their minds as they head to the polls to fill their town halls with mayors and councilors. A cost-of-living crisis has eclipsed covid as the top concern in opinion surveys. Britain’s inflation rate has risen to 7 percent, its highest rate in more than three decades.
But how the government handled the pandemic remains a looming issue, and these elections are the first chance for voters across the country to have their say since the Partygate scandal first broke in the fall.
The prime minister and his staff are now subject to not one, not two, but three ongoing investigations into a dozen boozy bashes that took place during strict coronavirus lockdowns.
A report by civil servant Sue Gray has already determined that the parties involved “failures of leadership and judgment.”
London’s Metropolitan Police have already issued 50 criminal fines, including to Johnson, making him the first sitting prime minister found to have broken the law. Police sources suggest more fines will be announced after the elections.
And Parliament has launched an additional inquiry into whether Johnson “knowingly misled” lawmakers about whether the government gatherings violated the government’s lockdown rules.
In a Tuesday interview with “Good Morning Britain,” Johnson insisted he was an “honest” politician who “inadvertently” misled Parliament.
The charge against Johnson is “knowingly misled,” because that’s how it’s talked about in the ministerial code, and because parliamentary rules of decorum prevent lawmakers from calling the prime minister a liar. But the British public is not so constrained.
The latest polling from YouGov found that over three-quarters of Britons (78 percent) think Johnson lied about Partygate. About half of those who plan to vote Conservative also told pollsters that he’s not telling the truth about the parties, meaning that this may not be a deal-breaker for all Tories.
But Johnson’s polling numbers on trustworthiness, competence and likability have plummeted. A majority of Brits say he should resign.
“Boris Johnson, the way he is behaving with all the parties in lockdown, he cannot be trusted,” said Darren Hall, 51, a resident of the London borough of Wandsworth, an area being watched closely by analysts.
Wandsworth has voted Conservative for 44 years. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher called it her “favorite” borough. Losing Wandsworth would be a huge blow to the ruling party.
Hall, who was waiting for friends outside of Clapham Junction train station, said he hoped this would be the year the council switched to Labour. “I was pulled over during lockdown by police when I had met with friends. And Boris? Well, it’s one rule for them, one rule for the rest of us,” he said.
The government gatherings — at the prime minister’s Downing Street office and residence and the nearby Cabinet Office — were held when Johnson’s government had restricted mixing between households, to reduce virus transmission and the strain on the National Health Service.
Among those who are most incensed about Partygate are people who were prevented from attending funerals in that period, or seeing dying relatives in the hospital.
Johnson’s loose relationship with the truth was already baked into many people’s thinking about him before he became prime minister. “Most people thought he was a liar to start with,” said Ben Page, chief executive of polling firm Ipsos Mori. But Britons have a deep sense of fair play, Page said, and it’s the notion that lawmakers were not obeying their own rules that grates.
Johnson, though, remains an exceptional politician, able to weather storms that might have sunk his predecessors.
He has faced intense criticism, including from his own Conservative Party. But he has been spared a no-confidence vote in part because his fellow Conservatives consider the mop-headed, backslapping, Oxford-educated prime minister a proven vote-getter.
Johnson was twice elected as mayor of left-leaning London, despite his Conservative credentials. His boosterism of Brexit helped achieve a surprise referendum win. And with Johnson as their leader, the Tories, as Conservative Party members are known, won a landslide victory in 2019, giving them a historic 80-seat majority in the House of Commons.
But if Tory lawmakers begin to sense he won’t help them keep their jobs in the next parliamentary elections, they may be eager to give him the shove.
In the one special election since the Partygate scandal first broke, Conservatives lost a parliamentary seat, representing the English town of North Shropshire, that they had held for nearly 200 years.
Ahead of Thursday’s local elections, Johnson has been out on the campaign trail, hitting up market towns in the north of England and television studios in the south, insisting he is an asset to his party.
But Conservatives trail Labour by about five to eight percentage points.
“Johnson’s pretty unpopular,” Page said. “If the local election results are terrible, it will encourage the rebels who want him out. But they need to find someone else first.”
Johnson is helped by the fact that there is no obvious successor waiting in the wings.
The Conservative party’s Plan B, Chancellor Rishi Sunak, saw his chances diminish after a scandal involving his wife’s taxes and after he, too, was hit with a Partygate fine.
Other names sometimes bandied around — Liz Truss, Jeremy Hunt, Tom Tugendhat — are not seen as tried and tested.
Johnson’s supporters, even the reluctant ones, have argued that now is not the time to replace a prime minister — as Britain and Johnson play an outsize role in support of Ukraine.
“Britain did change leaders in both the First World War and the Second World War,” noted Tony Travers, a politics expert at the London School of Economics. He added: “Most voters are vastly more driven by domestic policies than foreign affairs … the cost of living and the health service are top of people’s concerns.”
Tim Farron, a member of the opposition Liberal Democrats, told the House of Commons that Conservative Party members are “too ashamed” to defend the prime minister, “but too weak to sack him.”
He charged that the Tories were “disgracefully using the suffering of the people of Ukraine as an excuse not to take action.”