U.K. Tories Shrug Off Sleaze Claims, Unafraid of Voter Backlash

Boris Johnson may be mired in allegations of sleaze and cronyism in his U.K. government, yet members of his ruling Conservative Party say voters remain unmoved by the furor ahead of key elections next week.

Weeks of negative headlines about government ties to the now-insolvent lender Greensill Capital, and more recently over how the prime minister paid for the refurbishment of his Downing Street apartment, have not triggered any backlash, according to Tory MPs interviewed by Bloomberg.

Their confidence is backed up by polls. The Conservatives generally enjoy a double-digit lead nationally ahead of local and mayoral elections on May 6, bolstered by a coronavirus vaccine rollout that’s already reached more than half of the U.K. population.

Given that advantage, Johnson’s leadership is unlikely to come under threat unless the picture significantly changes. Voters simply don’t care about the sleaze allegations, said the MPs, who have all been out campaigning in recent weeks and vary significantly in their allegiance to Johnson.

One said there’s no cut-through from reports about Greensill’s lobbying, which have embroiled former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak.

As for the premier’s apartment, the MP said people can’t believe Johnson has to pay to decorate his official residence. Another said the controversy didn’t impact voters because its refurbishment wasn’t paid for from public money.

‘Priced In’

A third put the controversies down to the lack of normal parliamentary activity during the pandemic, which they said may have led to a “casual approach” toward formal procedures rather than outright dishonesty. There’s also a lot “priced in” with Johnson in terms of perception, the MP said.

Another reason may be the source of some of the recent turmoil. On Friday, Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s closest aide until his acrimonious departure in November, attacked the premier’s integrity in an incendiary blog post.

One MP pointed out Cummings himself was widely condemned last year for driving about 250 miles (400 kilometers) to another home during the first lockdown, a move many people saw as contravening pandemic restrictions.

They said they’d received just two complaints about sleaze, compared with 950 during the fallout over Cummings -- which included the revelation he’d also driven to Barnard Castle, a beauty spot, to test his eyesight.

‘Baffled’

Still, one Tory MP said some colleagues are “baffled” as to why the controversies don’t appear to be cutting through with voters.

According to Joe Twyman, director of Deltapoll, the public cares less about the latest scandals than the outcry over Cummings because “things are looking brighter in relation to the virus,” including the vaccine rollout and restrictions being lifted. “But we don’t yet know what the cumulative and long-term effect the scandals might have on Johnson’s fortunes.”

For the opposition parties, the vaccine “feelgood factor” presents a significant challenge, Labour’s Anneliese Dodds told reporters on Tuesday. “That inevitably is feeding through to the polling situation.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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