Boris Johnson has suffered a grassroots Tory revolt on the eve of crucial local elections, amid a warning he faces fresh questions about his leadership as soon as the results are in.
As millions go to the polls, some party candidates took the extraordinary step of rebranding themselves as “local Conservatives” – pleading with voters not to “punish” them for the Partygate scandal.
The prime minister was also hit by two of his former councillors releasing letters urging voters to back other parties, accusing the prime minister of “spreading lies” and “taking us for fools”.
The leader of one grassroots Tory group told The Independent that anger about the No 10 parties, topped up by fears over rising living costs, pointed to the party’s supporters staying at home on Thursday.
“People most affected by lockdown – those who missed weddings and funerals – still consider it a scandalous disgrace, and now they are feeling the impact of higher taxes and energy costs as well,” said John Strafford, head of the Campaign for Conservative Democracy.
Mr Johnson was also warned that “conversations” about whether he should quit will resume among Conservative MPs once the elections are out of the way.
“This isn’t for today, this is a big decision, important questions, for Friday and for the weeks after that,” said Tobias Ellwood, a former defence minister who has demanded a no-confidence vote, told the BBC.
The elections guru John Curtice, in an article for The Independent, said the Conservatives are on course to lose “hundreds” of seats in the first big test of public opinion since the parties’ scandal broke.
However, he pointed out that the seats up for grabs were last contested in 2018, when a Theresa May-led party and Labour tied on 35 per cent apiece – which would limit Keir Starmer’s gains.
“This could well produce Tory losses of a few hundred seats, but it would not necessarily look like a tsunami that threatened to sweep Mr Johnson out of Downing St,” Sir John predicted.
At Westminster, Conservative MPs are expected to await any further Partygate fines and Sue Gray’s stalled inquiry report before deciding whether to move against the prime minister – unless the results are disastrous.
On Thursday, the seats of more than 4,000 councillors in 146 councils will be up for grabs in major cities including Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds and all 32 London boroughs.
All 32 councils in Scotland and all 22 in Wales will be holding elections – as well the Northern Ireland Assembly, where the nationalist Sinn Fein party is poised to secure an historic victory.
On the campaign trail, Mr Johnson suffered the embarrassment of his candidates calling themselves “local Conservatives” on election leaflets, in London, Birmingham, the south west and the north east.
One read: “This Thursday, please don’t punish local Conservatives for the mistakes made in Westminster, we are local and proud of where we live and, like you, we want the best for Hartlepool.”
Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, said: “It speaks volumes that Boris Johnson’s own Conservative candidates are ashamed to be associated with him and trying to pull the wool over voters’ eyes.
“With no answers to the cost of living crisis, Tory candidates are trying to hide from their own government’s record.”
Two former Conservative councillors turned on their party and urged voters to back opposing parties, in letters released before the polls.
In Elmbridge, Surrey, Alan Kopitko warned it is “not the Conservative party I joined”, writing: “In their relentless pursuit of power at any cost, they are spreading lies and misinformation.”
And Barry Macleod-Cullinane, former deputy leader in Harrow, in London, said: “We now know that Boris Johnson broke the law and has lied repeatedly to parliament and to us. He’s taking us for fools – and we can’t let him get away with it.”
Mr Strafford said the views of his organisation’s members suggested opposition to Mr Johnson had shrunk from two-thirds to “50-50”, because of admiration for his stance on Ukraine.
But he warned: “Large numbers of Tory voters just won’t turn out, but they won’t vote Labour or Liberal Democrat either – which could lead to some strange results in Red Wall areas.”
Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat leader, said even the cost of living crisis had failed to drown out dissatisfaction about Mr Johnson’s leadership on the election doorstep.
“Some people are really upset with a prime minister who is not a decent man. People expect the British prime minister to be someone of integrity, of honesty, who abides by the law,” he told Sky News.
Mr Johnson also doubled down on his opposition to a windfall tax on oil and gas firms – dismissing even BP saying it would not cut the company’s investment plans for the UK.
Investing in green energy was “a much, much better solution than clobbering them and dissuading them, stopping them from making that investment”, the prime minister insisted.