British PM Boris Johnson faces crucial vote in party heartland

British PM Boris Johnson faces crucial vote in party heartland

LONDON (AFP): Under-fire British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday faced another crucial test of his leadership with a by-election in a constituency always won by his party, where defeat would intensify calls for a new leader.

Johnson, 57, is already reeling after around 100 of his own MPs on Tuesday broke ranks and voted against government plans to introduce vaccine passes for large events.

It follows a torrid few weeks for the leader, whose authority has been hit by claims of corruption and reports that he and his staff broke coronavirus restrictions last Christmas.

In normal times, a by-election in the rural English constituency of North Shropshire would be a formality for Johnson’s Conservative Party, which has never lost the seat.

The constituency, which has just over 80,000 voters, returned its last Tory lawmaker with a whopping 23,000 majority.

But ahead of polls opening at 0700 GMT, Johnson is struggling to convince many to stick with him after weeks of bad headlines, prompting predictions of a historic loss.

The poll, which closes at 2200 GMT, is increasingly seen as a referendum on Johnson’s premiership, just two years after his landslide general election victory in December 2019.

Defeat would likely see MPs start 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 himself, voted against her Brexit deal in parliament.

The Liberal Democrats have the best chance of overturning the Conservatives’ huge majority, helped by Labour supporters lending them their votes to maximise Johnson’s political pain.

In the market town of Whitchurch, Martin Hill, 68, who normally votes Labour, told AFP: “I’ll be voting for the Liberal Democrats because I’m so offended by the performance of Johnson.

“It’ll be a tactical vote — I want to give Johnson a slap in the face,” added the retired chemical engineer, calling the prime minister “dishonest”.

– Fall from grace –

However, some in Whitchurch were standing by Johnson and prepared to overlook the maverick 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 roll-out.

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.

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.

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