The timing of the impassioned speech betrayed a bid to divert attention from the cost of living and Partygate crises…reports Ashish Ray
Whether British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s attempt to woo British Gujaratis by visiting Gujarat last month will pay off or not will be evident by Friday morning, when results of local elections in the four segments of the United Kingdom – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – are declared.
“Boris Johnson attempts to wave goodbye to the Partygate row (the scandal of unlawful parties at his office-cum-residence during the COVID-19 pandemic) – for 48 hours at least — as he jets off to Gujarat,” wrote the pro-Boris Daily Mail newspaper as he flew in to Ahmedabad.
In Gujarat, among other activities, he attired himself in a Gujarati style turban as saffron-clothed priests received him. Significant sections of British Gujaratis – mostly migrants from East Africa – are into Hindutva.
British Gujaratis are mainly settled in north-west London and Leicester.
In recent years, voters from this community have been drifting from the Labour party, now in opposition, to the ruling Conservative party. However, actual results in general elections in the former area have been mixed and still in Labour’s favour in the latter city.
The polls on Thursday constitute the biggest local elections in Britain since 2017 and a major test of public opinion since Johnson led his Conservatives to an almost landslide victory in the snap general election in December 2019.
The polls take place amid months of calls for Johnson’s resignation, because of him allegedly lying to parliament regarding violations of COVID-19 laws at his office-cum-residence during the pandemic and allegations of corruption against him and his government.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine, therefore, came as a boon as he assiduously milked the development as if Britain itself had declared war.
Normally, local elections are fought on issues such as the quality and availability of children’s schools, the rate of council tax, recycling of waste, repair of nearby roads, parking facilities and charges, the granting of planning permissions and other council services.
This time – as the political parties concluded their door-to-door campaigns on the eve of voting – the feedback seemed to be the high cost of living is uppermost in people’s minds.
Shortages and higher prices brought about by slower and lower imports from European Union countries since Britain’s exit from the EU at the beginning of 2021, bottlenecks in the international supply chain and an extraordinary rise in electricity, gas and motor fuel prices have caused inflation to skyrocket to 7 per cent at the end of March 2022, when the Bank of England is mandated by the British government to control it around 2 per cent.
Labour has been demanding a one-off windfall tax on mega energy companies to alleviate people’s distress from the unprecedented increase in gas and electricity bills. However, Johnson felt he did not want to discourage energy companies from making long-term investments. This, on a day when the energy giant BP announced profits of 5 billion (Rs50,000 crore) for the first three months of 2022.
In an interview on breakfast television, it was cited to Johnson that a 77-year-old London pensioner Elsie has cut back on meals and uses buses to stay warm. He responded: ‘The 24-hour freedom pass bus pass (or free travel) was actually something that I introduced (as mayor of London).’
Jon Ashworth, a shadow secretary on Labour’s front benches, reacted: “Boasting about the London bus pass reveals just how out of touch this narcissistic prime minister is”.
The left-leaning Guardian daily reported: “Tories (Conservatives) are warning of as many as 800 losses out of more than 5,000 council seats being contested, and Labour suggesting they could make few gains.”
BBC said: “Senior figures in the (Labour) party don’t expect a dramatic increase in the number of councils they are in charge of, but instead are focussed on their projected national share of the vote.” This will indicate if it’s on course to regain power in the general election due in 2024.
On Wednesday, Johnson addressed the Ukrainian parliament by video.
The timing of the impassioned speech betrayed a bid to divert attention from the cost of living and Partygate crises.
A bad result coupled with likely more convictions against him personally in the Partygate affair (he has already suffered one) and revelation of the full wording of the cabinet office inquiry’s conclusions – expected to be quite damning – into the emotive episode could reignite demands for him to step down. The matter, though, is in the hands of his party, with 15 per cent of Conservative MPs required to ask for a leadership face-off for this to happen.
A sharp rise in global energy prices that has pushed up consumers’ gas and electricity bills is now also feeding through to the cost of goods in shops, putting more pressure on household budgets.
A poor set of results will increase pressure on Johnson, who has been under pressure for months and faces three investigations and the possibility of more police fines over his attendance at other lockdown-breaking gatherings.
“These elections are without doubt the biggest test of Boris Johnson since the 2019 general election and come after what has been a very difficult time for him and his government,” said Tony Travers, a professor at the London School of Economics.
But some lawmakers among Johnson’s governing Conservatives say that while the party may perform badly in some of its traditional supportive regions in southeast England, critics may not have the numbers to trigger a coup against the prime minister.