UPDATED: UK PM Johnson loses London strongholds as scandals bite in local elections

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LONDON, May 6 (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party lost control of traditional strongholds in London and suffered setbacks elsewhere in local elections, with voters punishing his government over a series of scandals.

As early results suggested Johnson, a former London mayor, was losing support in southeastern England, his supporters moved in quickly on Friday to say it was not time to oust a leader they said could still “get things done” to help the economy.

Johnson’s party was ousted in Wandsworth, a low-tax Conservative stronghold since 1978, part of a trend in the British capital where voters used the elections to express anger over a cost-of-living crisis and fines imposed on the prime minister for breaking his own COVID-19 lockdown rules.

For the first time, the opposition Labour Party won the council of Westminster, a district where most government institutions are located. The Conservatives also lost control of the borough of Barnet, which has been held by the party in all but two elections since 1964.

“Fantastic result, absolutely fantastic. Believe you me, this is a big turning point for us from the depths of 2019 general election,” Labour leader Keir Starmer told party supporters in London.

The overall tally due later on Friday will offer the most important snapshot of public opinion since Johnson won the Conservative Party’s biggest majority in more than 30 years in the 2019 national vote.

The ballot is an electoral test for Johnson since he became the first British leader in living memory to have broken the law while in office. He was fined last month for attending a birthday gathering in his office in 2020, breaking social distancing rules then in place to curb COVID’s spread. 

The loss of key councils in London, where the Conservatives were almost wiped out, will increase pressure on Johnson, who has been fighting for his political survival for months and faces the possibility of more police fines over his attendance at other lockdown-breaking gatherings.

But with indications support for his party has held up in areas of central and northern England that backed leaving the European Union in 2016, some Conservatives said Johnson’s critics were unlikely to have the numbers to trigger a coup, for now.

OUTSIDE LONDON

The elections held on Thursday will decide almost 7,000 council seats, including all those in London, Scotland and Wales, and a third of the seats in most of the rest of England.

Johnson upended conventional British politics in the 2019 general election by winning and then promising to improve living standards in former industrial areas in central and northern England.

But since then, he has been mired in scandal and is facing a growing cost-of-living crisis, with millions of people coping with rising energy bills and food prices. The Bank of England warned on Thursday that Britain risks a double-whammy of a recession and inflation above 10%. 

That has further dented support for the prime minister in London, where his backing for Brexit has put him at odds with many voters voted to stay in the EU.

Outside the capital, the Conservatives lost overall control of councils in Southampton, Worcester and West Oxfordshire.

But the party has not done as badly as some polls had predicted. One poll in the run-up to the elections said the Conservatives could lose about 800 council seats.

John Curtice, a professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, said early trends suggested the Conservatives were on course to lose about 250 seats. He said the results suggested Labour may not emerge as the largest party at the next election.

Oliver Dowden, the chairman of the Conservatives, said the party “had some difficult results” after weeks of what he described as “challenging headlines”, but that Labour was not on course to win the next general election.

“What you see in the Prime Minister is somebody who gets things done, a change maker,” Dowden said. “We need that kind of bold leadership precisely at a time when we’re facing these big challenges, whether it’s cost of living, whether it’s Ukraine, whether it’s the economic situation around the world.”

Some local Conservative council leaders called for Johnson to resign.

John Mallinson, Conservative leader of Carlisle city council, told the BBC that had found it “difficult to drag the debate back to local issues”.

“I just don’t feel people any longer have the confidence that the prime minister can be relied upon to tell the truth.”

(Reporting by Andrew MacAskill and Elizabeth Piper; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell, Stephen Coates and Andrew Heavens)

PHOTO: Labour Party campaign material for the London borough of Barnet in London, Britain, 06 May 2022. Local elections in the United Kingdom were held on 05 May 2022. The Labour party won three symbolic London councils from the Conservatives, namely Westminster, Barnet and Wandsworth. EPA-EFE/NEIL HALL

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