Boris Johnson Makes Last Pitch to Voters Before U.K. ‘Super Thursday’ Polls
(Bloomberg) -- Boris Johnson made a final push for votes ahead of “Super Thursday” elections, a major test of support for his U.K. premiership and the ruling Conservative Party amid a slew of allegations of ‘sleaze’ and cronyism that have undermined the government for months.
After the coronavirus outbreak forced one set of local elections to be pushed back by 12 months, two years’ of polls will be held across Britain on Thursday, including for 143 English councils, the Scottish and Welsh parliaments and the mayor of London. The parliamentary district of Hartlepool, won by the opposition Labour Party since the 1970s, is also up for grabs.
“It’s a very tough set of elections,” Johnson told reporters while campaigning in the West Midlands, where the region’s Conservative mayor Andy Street is bidding for a second term. “We’ll be fighting for absolutely every vote.”
Johnson’s Tories have been fighting off allegations of “sleaze” -- British political shorthand for scandals of corruption or other shady dealings -- following revelations about the lobbying of ministers by the now insolvent lender Greensill Capital, and amid accusations of cronyism over how health equipment contracts were awarded at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In recent weeks the attention has focused on Johnson, who was forced to deny he broke the law over the refurbishment of his apartment in Downing Street. The Tory party faces an inquiry from the Electoral Commission over the affair, while other probes are looking at the role of Johnson and his officials.
Still, several recent opinion polls have Johnson’s Tories holding a double-digit lead over Keir Starmer’s Labour Party, bolstered by a significant drop in recent coronavirus cases and a vaccine rollout that has delivered more than 50 million doses.
If the polls prove correct, the political focus may shift quickly to Labour and Starmer, especially if the party suffers what would be a humiliating defeat in Hartlepool -- a seat represented by Labour since its inception in 1974.
If the Tories take the district, it will only be the third time since World War II that the ruling party has gained a seat from the opposition at a by-election.
That would likely increase pressure on Starmer, for whom Thursday’s votes represent his first electoral test as leader as he tries to rebuild the party following its worst drubbing in a general election in nearly 90 years in 2019.
Critics say Starmer’s style as a forensic former public prosecutor does not connect with voters, especially pitched against the flamboyant Johnson.
On Wednesday, his message was one of managing expectations.
“This is the first test and we go into that test fighting for every vote,” Starmer told reporters in Pontefract, northern England on Wednesday. “But I never thought we would climb the mountain we have to climb in just one year -- it is going to take longer than that.”
Even if the votes in England go Johnson’s way on Thursday, polls show a very different picture in Scotland. A Scottish National Party majority -- or what would be a pro-independence majority in conjunction with the Greens -- would put the British prime minister under intense pressure to grant another referendum on Scotland breaking away from the U.K., following the first one in 2014.
On Wednesday, Johnson gave no ground.
“I think that most people in Scotland, most people around the whole of the U.K., feel that this is not the time, as we’re coming forward out of a pandemic together, this is not the time to have a reckless, and I think irresponsible, second referendum,” he said.
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