Johnson’s popularity faces a key test in a Brexit heart


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(Bloomberg) – The town of Hartlepool in northeast England is the kind of place a Tory prime minister would normally struggle to find support.

One of the UK’s most disadvantaged areas, the blue collar port saw its steel industry collapse in the 1970s and 1980s and the unemployment rate remains among the highest in the country. Politically, he has supported the Labor Party in every British election for almost half a century. But then came Brexit.

Hartlepool is holding a vote on May 6 which will be a critical test for Prime Minister Boris Johnson after his landslide victory in 2019 paved the way for Britain’s exit from the European Union after years of feuds.

This will be a key indicator of whether Johnson’s initial popularity survived a pandemic that has left Britain with the worst death toll in Europe, and whether Brexit supporters still adhere to his pledge to ‘level’ l ‘economy. And now there’s also the question of the damage caused by a recent Johnson leadership scandal that engulfed his government. It has endured a relentless barrage of negative headlines, even from generally favorable newspapers.

The Conservatives are bookmakers’ favorites to win the election for the city’s next parliamentarian. The Survation and Ipsos MORI polls also put the party in the lead. This is mainly because the votes of the now defunct Brexit party in the last election are expected to be transferred to Johnson in a center of Labor north where a Tory victory would have been unthinkable a few years ago. The city supported leaving the EU 70%.

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One of those constituents is Geoff Carr, who runs a shoemaking business next to a closed pawnshop on Hartlepool’s main shopping thoroughfare. A committed Brexit supporter, Carr says the UK Covid-19 inoculation program which has covered more than half of the population justifies leaving the EU. He will now vote Conservative.

“The vaccine, you can’t blame them,” said Carr, 58, between polishing shoes and serving customers behind a large plexiglass screen. “This is one of the reasons we came out of Europe, so that we can make our own decisions.”

Hartlepool epitomizes the post-industrial decline of Britain, a forgotten coastal town that is often best known in Britain for a folk tale about locals hanging from a monkey believed to be a French spy during the Napoleonic Wars. (The city elected its football club’s monkey mascot as mayor in 2002 and he won two more terms.) Many storefronts are closed, locals have complained that the city center has been neglected by then. that the investments were going into his marina.

A victory would strengthen Johnson’s position in what was once called the ‘red wall’ of Labor electoral districts in northern England. In the last British election, neighboring Brexit-backed regions such as the former mining town of Bishop Auckland and Redcar, where a giant steel plant has gone missing on the North Sea coast, defected to the Tories for the first time. for decades.

The by-election is also just one of the tests Johnson faces on May 6. There are also elections to the Scottish Parliament, where the Nationalists seek a clear victory to step up the pressure for another referendum on independence, the Welsh assembly and across English Townships.

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“There’s always a lot at stake in these kinds of elections, but maybe the stakes are higher this time around than they’ve been in a few years,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics. at Queen Mary University in London. “The large number of contests taking place means it’s kind of a Super Thursday, almost equivalent to the midterm elections in the United States.”

Voters will take their pick as Johnson fights on multiple fronts. First, there were inflammatory claims against him by former councilor Dominic Cummings, who questioned his competence and integrity in a lengthy blog post. Next, the Election Commission said on April 28 that it would investigate whether the Prime Minister had properly declared the donations that funded the renovation of his Downing Street residence.

The Labor Party has sought to capitalize on the issue, calling the Party Conservatives a “sleaze,” an echo of the 1990s when scandals helped undermine the government and propel Tony Blair to power.

But in the streets of Hartlepool, voters were either ignorant of the controversy or insensitive to it. “Far more important things are happening than who got their hands on 10 Downing Street,” said Peter Davison, 66, a retired businessman. “People don’t care at all.”

A bigger challenge can be apathy. A lifelong Labor voter, Davison will not vote because he is disillusioned with politics and it is not hard to find similar views on the politics unfolding 230 miles south of London.

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The majority of people approached on a recent weekday to talk about the election said they didn’t care and knew nothing about it. Ale Issmat, a local hairstylist, said he would vote Conservatives, but only because their campaign had brought clients to his salon.

Still, a lot is at stake for Hartlepool. As with similar regions, the Brexit vote was a call for change, to end years of perceived neglect by the Westminster government following the collapse of manufacturing industries. Johnson’s post-Brexit mantra is to better distribute wealth and opportunity across the UK. For its part, Hartlepool has refocused its port activity on green energy in recent years.

The May 6 vote, along with the UK’s, is also the first real test of Labor leader Keir Starmer’s ability to revive the party’s fortunes after a catastrophic 2019 result. Starmer’s stance with voters has taken hold. of delay in recent weeks as Johnson waves good feelings over the country’s successful vaccine rollout. If Labor does not make significant gains, it will be hard to imagine the party returning to power in the next UK election, said Bale, the politics professor.

Labor loyalties, at least, still run deep in the north of England, and for many voters the idea of ​​voting Conservative remains anathema.

Evelynne Ray, 72, a retired nurse, blamed the Conservatives for cuts in funding to local councils, which she said led to the shutdown of hospital services. She also criticized Johnson for failing to lock down the country earlier when the pandemic started. If he had acted more decisively, the social restrictions could have been lifted months ago, she said.

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“I’m definitely not a fan of Boris,” said Ray, wearing a disposable mask under his chin and sitting across from the Hartlepool War Memorial. “I dont like him at all.”

Yet with the lifting of restrictions on coronaviruses and more than twice the proportion of the population vaccinated compared to the EU, Johnson has gained political capital.

Munching on shortbread and drinking coffee al fresco at a cafe, Barbara and Brian Tunstall expressed sympathy for the Prime Minister, especially in light of the allegations made against him by Cummings, his former chief adviser. “It makes me think much worse of Cummings than of Johnson,” said Brian, 77. “I’m sorry for him,” Barbara said. “He’s had a tough old year.”

© 2021 Bloomberg LP

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