Fri, July 01, 2022

international

In a bad sign for Boris Johnson, Britains Conservatives lose parliament seat they held for nearly 200 years


LONDON - Boris Johnsons ruling Conservative Party lost a seat Friday that it had safely held for almost 200 years, in a fresh blow to the British prime minister that renewed questions about his leadership.

The Liberal Democrats won North Shropshire in central England after the seat became vacant following a sleaze scandal that engulfed Johnson's Conservative Party. The pro-Brexit district had sent a Conservative politician to Parliament since its formation in 1832.

The loss is certain to boost Johnson's critics in the Conservative Party, which in particular is known for deposing leaders it sees as not winning elections.

"The people of North Shropshire have spoken on behalf of the British people. They have said loudly and clearly: 'Boris Johnson, the party is over,'" Helen Morgan, the newly elected member of Parliament, said in her victory speech.

The shocking result - the centrist Liberal Democrats not only overturned a Conservative majority of 23,000 but won by nearly 6,000 votes - follows a massive rebellion by Johnson's party this week over his introduction of coronavirus measures to head off a rise in infections.

It's just one seat of 650 in a Parliament that the Conservatives handily dominate, but it has received national attention as a test for the embattled prime minister, who has endured weeks of bad headlines.

The seat became vacant after Conservative lawmaker Owen Paterson, an ally of Johnson's, stepped down for breaking lobbying rules.

Johnson took personal responsibility for the loss and acknowledged that voters were frustrated and unaware of all his government's recent achievements.

"I've got to put my hands up and say, 'Have I failed to get that message across in the last few weeks? Has it been obscured by all this other stuff?' Yes, I'm afraid it has," he told broadcasters.

Analysts said the North Shropshire vote concentrated minds on Johnson's ability - or not - to win elections. "His whole premiership is based on, 'he's good at winning elections,'" said Rob Ford, a professor of politics at the University of Manchester. "If it becomes a settled view that, far from being an electoral Gandalf, he is an electoral Voldemort, he's not long for Number 10," he added, referring to the prime minister's address at 10 Downing Street in London.

Paula Surridge, a senior lecturer at the University of Bristol, said some members of the Conservative Party were "never fans" of Johnson's but were willing to "put up with him" because he was an electoral asset, not a liability. In December 2019, Johnson led the Conservatives to a whopping 80-seat majority, winning seats in traditional Labour Party heartlands in the north of England.

But the latest election shows the "the shine was coming off with voters," Surridge said.

The Conservative Party is known to be quicker than most at toppling leaders perceived as unable to bring in the voters. Most famously, in 1990 Margaret Thatcher was booted out by her own party with a sudden ruthlessness that surprised Britons.

But Johnson is no stranger to controversy and has bounced back, repeatedly, from scandals and setbacks. And while talk of regicide is easy, there are no reports of a deluge of letters of no confidence flooding in.

Daniel Wincott, a politics expert at Cardiff University, said Johnson has long had a reputation as a "Teflon politician on whom things seem to slide." But lately, less has been sliding.

Johnson is battling fires on many fronts: a surging omicron variant, rebellious lawmakers, tanking approval ratings.

Arguably most damaging, said Wincott, is the drip, drip, drip of allegations about government staff flouting rules and attending Christmas parties last year at a time when such gatherings were banned. The "sense of hypocrisy does start to stick," Wincott said.

Johnson denied that any rules were broken and ordered an internal inquiry by Britain's top civil servant, Simon Case. In a surreal development on Friday evening, Case recused himself from the probe following reports that a gathering was held in his own office around the same time.

Johnson is in trouble, said Ben Page, chief executive of Ipsos MORI, a pollster. "He's made a series of self-inflicted wounds, and if he continues on the same track, then all bets are off."

But he added that things were "not yet terminal" and that "assuming he can get his act together, he can recover." The next general election is due in 2024. While the Labour Party is currently polling slightly ahead of the Conservatives for the first time in years, it would still lose if an election were held today because of boundary changes and demographics.

Surridge, the lecturer, said she did not think Johnson was in "immediate trouble" but allowed that the tide has turned against him. The "events of the last few weeks have damaged him enough that it's sort of the beginning of the end," she said. "I don't think the end will be soon, but I think it will be difficult to recover from completely."

Published : December 18, 2021

By : The Washington Post