Why Boris Johnson Will Be Tested in UK by Local Elections

BURY, England — Oliver Henry tries not to talk politics at his barbershop to avoid inciting arguments among his customers. But when Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain was fined recently by the police for breaking his own coronavirus laws, the bickering at Chaps Barbers was unavoidable.

“Some people despise him, and other people really love him,” he said, referring to Mr. Johnson, whose Conservative Party faces an important electoral test Thursday as the prime minister battles a swirling scandal over parties in Downing Street that flouted lockdown rules.

As he trimmed a client’s hair last week, Mr. Henry said he voted for Mr. Johnson’s Conservatives in the last general election, in 2019, and, grateful for government financial support during the pandemic, was not planning to abandon the prime minister yet.

Whether millions of others feel the same when they vote Thursday in elections for local municipalities could determine Mr. Johnson’s fate. His leadership is again on the line, with his own lawmakers mulling a no-confidence motion that could evict him from Downing Street — and a poor result could tip them over the edge.

One thing that has saved Mr. Johnson so far is his reputation as an election winner, someone able to reach out to voters in places like Bury, the so-called red wall regions of the north and middle of England. These areas traditionally voted for the opposition Labour Party but largely supported Brexit and turned to the Conservatives in the 2019 general election. What happens in them on Thursday will be watched closely.

Elections are taking place only in some parts of the country, with around 4,400 seats being contested in more than 140 municipalities. Voting is also taking place in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Conservatives are braced for losses. They are trailing Labour in opinion polls, the prime minister is mired in scandal and voters are feeling the pain of spiking energy, food and other prices.

But things may still not be as easy for Labour as they might seem. Many of the seats contested on Thursday were last up for grabs in 2018, when Labour did well, giving it limited room to advance.

Voting is for elected representatives known as councilors in municipalities that control issues like garbage collection, highway maintenance and planning rules. Turnout will most likely be low, and many of those who cast a ballot will be thinking more about potholes than Downing Street parties.

Labour is also struggling to make a big breakthrough and win back its old heartland “red wall” areas, like Bury, the birthplace of Robert Peel, a 19th century Conservative prime minister. In recent decades, the area has suffered from deindustrialization.

In Bury South, it elected Labour lawmakers to Parliament for years before 2019, when the Conservatives narrowly snatched the seat. But the winner, Christian Wakeford, recently defected to Labour. James Daly, a Conservative, won the other parliamentary seat, Bury North, in 2019 by a margin of just 105 votes.

If Labour is ever going to fully regain control over Bury, now should be a good time. At the Brandlesholme Community Center and Food Bank, close to Chaps Barbers, its chairwoman, Jo Warburton, sums up the situation locally in a word: “diabolical.”

Soaring energy bills are forcing some people to choose between eating and heating, she said, adding, “Nobody can afford to live.” Ms. Warburton recently put out a plea for additional donations after having almost run out of food to offer. Even people with jobs are increasingly in need of groceries, including one person who said she had been surviving on soup for a week, Ms. Warburton added.

Because the food bank is a charity, Ms. Warburton tries to keep out of politics. But she said that while local Labour Party politicians support the center, she has had little contact with Conservatives. As for the government in London, “they haven’t got a clue about life,” she said.

Across town, one Bury resident, Angela Pomfret, said she sympathized in particular with those who have young families. “I don’t know how people are able to survive,” she said. “I am 62, and I am struggling.”

Ms. Pomfret said she had been unable to visit her mother, who died during the coronavirus pandemic, because of Covid restrictions, so she was at first annoyed by news about illicit parties taking place in Downing Street at the same time.

But while Ms. Pomfret says she will vote for Labour, she bears no grudge against Mr. Johnson and says she is not against him personally.

Nor is there much hostility toward him at Bury Market, where Andrew Fletcher, serving customers at a meat and poultry stall, acknowledges that trade is a little depressed at present but does not blame the government. “I will be voting Tory,” he said. “I don’t think Labour could do any better.”

Trevor Holt, who has spent 39 years as an elected member of Bury Council for the Labour Party and twice served as the town’s mayor, is convinced that Mr. Johnson is a big liability for the Tories.

“I think Boris Johnson is very unpopular, people think he’s either a fool or a crook — and he’s probably both, isn’t he?” he said with a laugh, drinking tea in a cafe at a building he opened as mayor in 1997. The cost of living is also eroding support for the Conservatives, he added. His expectations are cautious, however, and he thinks that Labour will “gain some seats” rather than sweep to a big victory.

Labour currently controls Bury Council, and that means that it takes the blame for many things that go wrong locally as well as for some unpopular policies.

Moves to build more homes on green spaces have provoked opposition, as have plans for a clean air zone, a proposal — now being reconsidered after protests — that would charge for journeys in some more polluting vehicles.

To complicate matters, there is also a fringe party campaigning for more support for an area of Bury called Radcliffe. In the Royal Oak pub, Mike Smith, a councilor for the party, Radcliffe First, who is running for re-election, describes his patch as “an archetypal forgotten ‘red-wall’ town,” comparing it to Springfield, the fictional setting of “The Simpsons.”

“If they need to build a sewage works, they’ll try to put it in Radcliffe,” he said.

At another table in the pub, which filled steadily before a soccer match was screened, Martin Watmough described Mr. Johnson as “an absolute charlatan,” and said he would support Labour in the local elections, adding that the Conservatives had lost the trust of many voters.

But Nick Jones, the leader of the Conservatives on Bury Council, is bullish, considering the political headwinds against his party generated by the lockdown party scandal. He is hoping to win a handful of seats.

Mr. Jones is campaigning not so much for the prime minister as against Labour’s record locally. Speaking in another pub in Bury, he highlighted issues including the clean air zone plan, the state of the highways (“a disgrace,” in his opinion) and the frequency of refuse collections.

When the conversation turns to Mr. Johnson, who visited Bury last week, Mr. Jones is careful to be loyal.

But his political pitch has little to do with a scandal-prone prime minister, whose immediate fate could depend on results of elections like these.

The message to the voters in Bury, Mr. Jones said, is: “We are not talking about Downing Street, we are talking about your street.”

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