Voters head to polls as UK PM faces crucial test in heartland
Under-fire British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday faced a crucial test of his leadership as polls opened in a by-election in a constituency his party has never lost, where defeat would intensify calls for a new leader.
Johnson, 57, is already reeling after roughly 100 of his own MPs on Tuesday voted against government plans to introduce vaccine passes for large events.
The UK leader’s authority has been clobbered repeatedly in recent weeks by claims of corruption and reports that he and his staff broke coronavirus restrictions last Christmas.
Weeks of bad headlines have turned what would normally be a routine victory in a safe rural seat into a much more fraught process for Johnson’s Conservatives.
Ahead of polls opening in North Shropshire at 0700 GMT, Johnson was struggling to convince many to stick with him, prompting predictions of a historic loss in a seat where the previous Conservative MP won a huge 23,000 majority in the last election.
Voting, which closes at 2200 GMT with a result expected hours later, is increasingly seen as a referendum on Johnson’s premiership just two years after his landslide general election victory in December 2019.
Defeat would probably see more MPs filing letters of no-confidence in their leader, which could trigger an internal party vote to remove him.
The same process saw his predecessor Theresa May ousted in mid-2019 after MPs including Johnson voted against her Brexit deal in parliament.
“We are fighting for every vote,” Johnson’s spokesman told reporters on the eve of the election when asked if the prime minister would quit if the party lost.
The Liberal Democrats have the best chance of overturning the Conservatives’ huge majority, helped by supporters of the main national opposition Labour party lending them their votes.
“I’ll be voting for the Liberal Democrats because I’m so offended by the performance of Johnson,” Martin Hill, 68, who normally votes Labour, told AFP earlier this week.
“It’ll be a tactical vote — I want to give Johnson a slap in the face.”
Fall from grace
However, others in the small town of Whitchurch were prepared to overlook the former London mayor’s transgressions.
“I think Boris Johnson’s been a bit silly really… like a naughty little schoolboy,” said 67-year-old Sue Parkinson, who has voted Conservative for the last two decades.
“I don’t think it’s enough for us to say: ‘right, we want a new leader now’, because I think Boris has done an excellent job.”
The atmosphere is a far cry from May, when the Conservatives swept to an unprecedented by-election victory in the northeast England seat of Hartlepool on the back of a successful vaccine rollout.
But the virus still dominates British life and the arrival of the Omicron variant has again deepened the gloom before Christmas.
Nearly 80,000 people tested positive for Covid-19 in a 24-hour period on Wednesday — the highest daily number since the pandemic hit Britain last year.
Britain is also suffering spiralling inflation as a result of big borrowing during lockdowns, high energy prices and bottlenecked supply chains. Tax rises also loom from next April.
Johnson — who won voters’ overwhelming backing in 2019 on his promise to “Get Brexit Done” — has been dogged by controversies since early last month.
It began with his unsuccessful attempt to change parliament’s disciplinary rules to spare North Shropshire MP Owen Paterson a suspension after he was found to have breached lobbying rules.
Paterson, who had held the seat since 1997, then quit, forcing Thursday’s by-election.
That crisis, though, was soon eclipsed by reports that Johnson and his staff broke Covid rules last year by holding several parties around Christmas — just as the public were told to cancel their festive plans.