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Britain’s Tories Expected to Face Election Losses

An unsmiling Boris Johnson’s face seen close up, as he looks into the distance, shading one eye with his hand.
Credit...Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Almost the first thing I saw when I arrived in the London suburb of Uxbridge was two teenage girls in school uniforms getting into a fistfight in the shopping mall outside the underground station. Uxbridge is a middle-class place, stodgy but diversifying, whose voters are squeezed by a cost of living crisis and anxious about rising public disorder. Until last month, it was represented by Boris Johnson, and, as the Labour lawmaker Steve Reed told me, it hasn’t sent a member of the left-leaning Labour Party to Parliament since 1966.

But last month Johnson, who’d stepped down as prime minister in 2022, resigned his seat rather than face discipline for lying to Parliament regarding his shameless socializing during the pandemic lockdown. And in the election next week to replace him, the Labour candidate, Danny Beales, is considered the favorite, a sign of just how far Tory fortunes have fallen.

The contest in Uxbridge and South Ruislip — the full name of Johnson’s former constituency — is one of three elections happening next Thursday to fill seats that Conservatives have vacated. There’s also an election in Selby and Ainsty, where Johnson’s ally Nigel Adams quit shortly after Johnson did, reportedly furious about the political machinations that had thwarted his elevation to the House of Lords. And there’s one in Somerton and Frome, where the Conservative David Warburton resigned in a scandal involving cocaine and allegations of sexual misconduct.

A recent poll shows the Labour candidate ahead in Selby and Ainsty, where in 2019 Adams won more than 60 percent of the vote. In Somerton and Frome, the candidate of the centrist Liberal Democrats appears to have a strong chance of prevailing. “My central expectation is that we lose all three,” a Conservative lawmaker told the BBC.

Obviously, that’s not guaranteed. When I spoke to Joshua Simons, the head of Labour Together, a think tank close to Labour leadership, he suggested that Conservatives were strategically exaggerating their pessimism to lower expectations. Still, there’s a broad sense that, with national elections due sometime in the next 18 months, the Conservative Party is imploding. “We Are on For a Massive Defeat,” blared a headline in The Financial Times, quoting a former Tory cabinet minister.

Britain’s Conservative collapse looks particularly stark when set against the ascendant right in much of the rest of Europe. Italy has a prime minister from a party with fascist roots. The far-right Vox could be part of the next government in Spain. There are right-wing governments in Sweden and Finland. Conservatives just won a second term in Greece. The last French election was a contest between the center-right Emmanuel Macron and the far- right Marine Le Pen, and though Le Pen lost, she appears to be gaining support in the wake of the recent riots. Even in Germany, where shame about the Holocaust once seemed to inoculate its people against right-wing extremism, the reactionary Alternative for Germany just won its first mayoral election, and in a recent poll it was the second most popular party in the country.

Yet in Britain, the right appears to be approaching something like free fall, with a recent poll showing Labour with a 21-point lead nationally. It’s quite a turnaround, given that, until recently, the Tories were often called the most successful political party in the world. Less than four years ago, the party won its fourth consecutive national election by a staggering margin, leaving Labour, then led by the leftist Jeremy Corbyn, decimated. “It was catastrophic,” said Reed. “It was really in question as to whether the Labour Party could survive.” A 2021 New Republic article was subtitled, “How the Tories Became Unbeatable.”

It would be nice, as someone who wants to see social democracy thrive, to report that Labour has since discovered some brilliant strategy for beating the right. In truth, though, if conservative hegemony in Britain is starting to break down, the Tories deserve most of the credit, both for their dissipation and their mismanagement.

There have been so many Conservative sex and corruption scandals that the phrase “Tory sleaze” has become a cliché, and the ruling party’s decadence is matched by its incompetence. Covid created economic misery worldwide, but since the pandemic the U.K. has performed significantly worse than its peers in the rest of Europe. Among the reasons for this malaise are the fallout from Brexit, finalized in 2020, and the supply-side fantasies of Liz Truss, Johnson’s successor, who sent the economy into a tailspin during her 44 days in office.

Today inflation is no longer in the double digits, but as of May, it was still at 8.7 percent, “the highest among the world’s big, rich economies,” as Reuters reported. Rent has reached record highs, and spiking interest rates are clobbering homeowners, since most British mortgages, unlike those in America, have their rates locked in for only two or five years. “People are seeing, you know, £500 to £600 a month increases in their mortgages, which people just can’t afford at the moment,” said Reed.

Britain’s prized National Health Service is in crisis as well, with a record 7.47 million people on waiting lists for routine hospital care. On Thursday, junior doctors — postgraduate trainees who make up about half of doctors in English hospitals — went on strike over low pay. That comes after a nurses’ strike that ended late last month. Reed, who is chair of Beales’s Labour campaign in Uxbridge, points out that the hospital there is crumbling. “There is literally masonry falling out of the roofs, and parts of it are closed off because water is leaking through the roof,” he said.

Simons of Labour Together told me he’d visited Uxbridge twice in the last week, and said that voters there “hate the Tories, and hate British politics at the moment.” Now, that’s very different from saying that people like or trust Labour. Scarred by the mortifying rout of the 2019 election, the Labour politicians I spoke to were decidedly humble about their own connection with voters. But they at least see things trending their way.

“I think they’re going to show just how incredibly unpopular the Tories are at the moment,” Angela Rayner, deputy leader of the Labour Party, said of next week’s elections. “And I think they’ll show how much work the Labour Party has done to regain the trust. We’re still on that journey, by the way. I’m not complacent about that. But I think people are starting to listen to the Labour Party now.” For that, they have the Tories to thank.

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Posted on 15 Jul 2023 06:14 link