A revolt of traditional Conservatives in the party’s true blue strongholds in council elections this week will rack up pressure on Boris Johnson to step aside as leader, party insiders believe.
One MP told The Independent there will be “panic” if results are poor on Thursday, which is the first opportunity for voters to cast their verdict on Mr Johnson since the Partygate scandal.
The elections come as a new poll for The Independent found that more than a quarter (27 per cent) of voters who backed the Tories in the 2019 general election say they are less likely to do so again if Mr Johnson remains leader.
The survey by pollsters Savanta showed Labour extending its lead over Tories by two points, compared to a similar poll last month, on 40 per cent to the Conservatives’ 34. And it showed a sharp fall in Mr Johnson’s personal ratings since he became the first sitting prime minister to be fined for law-breaking, with a favourability score of -28 (33 per cent saying he is doing a good job and 61 per cent bad) compared to -19 last month.
Some 65 per cent – including 46 per cent of Tory voters – said he should resign if he receives more fines or is harshly criticised in senior civil servant Sue Gray’s report on Partygate, and 63 per cent said his apologies so far have been inadequate. Just 28 per cent believed his account that he was unaware that he was breaking the law when he took part in a Downing Street birthday party, with 63 per cent – including 52 per cent of Tory voters – saying he was lying.
With Conservatives defending only around 1,200 of the 6,800 seats up for grabs across England, Scotland and Wales on Thursday, the loss of anything more than about 350 councillors would be seen as damaging and 800would be catastrophic for Mr Johnson.
Labour is hoping for advances in the so-called Red Wall areas of the Midlands and North lost to Tories in the 2019 election and in London boroughs such as Barnet and Wandsworth, but insiders concede its numerical advance will be limited by the fact that it did relatively well the last time most of the seats were contested in 2018.
But there is a growing focus on traditionally rock-solid Tory seats in leafy commuter belts, which restive MPs are increasingly concerned are being turned into marginals by voter distaste for the Johnson regime.
One Tory MP told The Independent: “There’s no doubt that Partygate will take a toll, with our voters staying home or registering a protest vote, and speaking to colleagues, it is those in the Home Counties who are most gloomy about what is coming.
“Their canvassing suggests they could be facing a big fall-off in support, while it seems to be holding up in councils with a bigger working-class population.”
Conservative elections guru Robert Hayward agreed: “The Tories are facing their biggest problems in the Home Counties and in what one would describe as upper middle-class, university-educated constituencies – the Surreys, the Hertfordshires and Hampshires.
“They will be, next Thursday, in particular difficulty in those areas. And given that the overwhelming majority of the MPs in those areas are Tory it is likely to worry those people quite markedly.”
Conservative MPs in supposedly safe seats will be “unsettled” if they lose significant numbers of councillors on Thursday night, said Lord Hayward.
“It will confirm all the worst fears in the parliamentary party and add to the pressures on Boris Johnson,” he added.
This may not immediately translate into more letters of no-confidence going to the 1922 Committee chairman Sir Graham Brady, who must call a ballot on Mr Johnson’s leadership if demanded by 54 MPs.
While many MPs previously said they were suspending judgement until the May elections, there is a sense in Westminster that, with police still handing out fines for infringements of lockdown laws, the moment of decision will be delayed until Ms Gray’s final report.
One MP in a Home Counties seat told The Independent: “There’s still anger on the doorsteps over parties. It faded away a little when Russia invaded Ukraine and the PM’s robust response was widely appreciated, but it’s come back since he was fined. It’s difficult to know where we are until the process is complete.”
Another backbencher said: “Thursday is looking less pivotal than it did a few months ago. A bad set of results will panic colleagues, but if there’s a mixed picture it puts things off to the final outcome of the Partygate investigation, which from what we’ve seen so far will not be pretty.”
Liberal Democrats have made no secret that they regard the so-called Blue Wall of traditionally Tory seats – many of them home to Conservatives opposed to Brexit – as a fertile hunting ground in the wake of spectacular by-election wins in Chesham & Amersham and North Shropshire.
They hope to pick up councillors on Thursday in areas ranging from Wimbledon and Richmond in south-west London to commuter-belt areas such as Elmbridge in Surrey or Harpenden in Hertfordshire, as well as Harrogate in North Yorkshire.
Their deputy leader Daisy Cooper told The Independent that this week is the moment for voters angry over Partygate and the cost-of-living crisis to make their feelings known.
“This is really the best opportunity that voters have to send a message to Boris Johnson and his government, but also to make them listen,” said the St Albans MP. “I think that’s really, really critical.
“The sense I get from many people – including former lifelong Conservative voters – is that they look at Boris Johnson and his government, and they just think ‘They’re not on my side. They don’t speak to me. I don’t share their values and they don’t share mine’.
“These are people who are often internationalist, they’re environmentalists, they are pro-business, they are pro-public service.
“They look at this government and they see a government that breaks the rules. They see a government that is in it for themselves. They see a government that abides by this sense of one rule for them, one for everybody else, and all the while they see their taxes going up and they are really starting to struggle.”
Even if Conservatives flop on Thursday, one factor in today’s polling that will give Mr Johnson hope of holding on is the absence of an obvious alternative leader.
In the wake of his poorly-received mini-budget and The Independent’s revelations about his wife’s non-dom status and his own former possession of a green card granting US residency, chancellor Rishi Sunak’s ratings saw a precipitous fall over the month from +12 (48 per cent thinking he was doing a good job and 36 per cent bad) in March to -17 now (36 per cent good job, 53 per cent bad).
Despite being cleared of breaching the ministerial code by Downing Street’s ethics adviser Lord Geidt, Mr Sunak was not so easily forgiven by voters. Fifty per cent said wife Akshata Murty’s tax affairs were a resigning matter for the chancellor, against 35 per cent who said they were not. And 46 per cent said he should quit over the green card, which requires him to pay tax in the US and commit to settling permanently in the country, compared to 34 per cent who said he should not.
Numbers seeing him as the best leader slumped from 17 to 9 per cent (and from 21 to 10 among Tory voters), downgrading him from clear frontrunner to one of a group of would-be contenders such as Liz Truss, Sajid Javid (both backed by 6 per cent) and Jeremy Hunt (7 per cent), none of whom have built up significant support.
Although Johnson had the backing of only 21 per cent as best person to be Tory leader, his closest challenger in the poll was “someone else” on 20.
– The Savanta poll questioned 2,231 UK adults on 22-24 April.