Will Tory sleaze storm affect the May elections?

Conservatives claim weeks of damaging leaks are not ‘cutting through’ to voters

Boris Johnson in Wales
Boris Johnson campaigning in Llandudno, north Wales, this week
(Image credit: Phil Noble/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

Boris Johnson is holding a cabinet meeting today as No. 10 battles to reclaim the political agenda amid a flurry of sleaze allegations less than two weeks before the UK goes to the polls.

The government has been hit by a series of embarrassing claims about lobbying; the “revolving door” between politics and business; potentially rule-breaking messages via text and Whatsapp; the refurbishment of the prime minister’s flat; and allegations by former key adviser Dominic Cummings of “unethical” behaviour in No. 10.

And another row is erupting today, with The Times reporting claims that Johnson “repeatedly” said last autumn that he would rather let coronavirus “rip” than implement another lockdown.

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Downing Street has denied the accusations, while Labour is pushing to keep the spotlight on the so-called “Tory sleaze” ahead of nationwide local elections on 6 May. But do voters really care about the claims?

In the polls

Ipsos Mori survey findings published by the London Evening Standard last night show that support for the Tories has dropped by five points since March. The poll, carried out between 16 and 22 April, puts the Conservatives on 40% - just three points clear of Labour, on 37%.

The newspaper says the latest survey results “will fuel Tory fears that the ‘drip drip’ of allegations is undermining their hopes in the Hartlepool by-election and in local and Scottish elections” next month.

A separate poll for the i news site, by Redfield & Wilton Strategies, found that 50% of 1,500 respondents quizzed over the weekend agreed that there “is a culture of sleaze in the UK government”. Just 11% disagreed and 29% neither agreed nor disagreed.

However, the pollster’s latest voting intention survey found the Conservative Party to be leading by 10%, with no change from the previous week.

On the doorstep

Despite the Ipsos Mori poll findings, Conservative MPs and candidates “have said that the sleaze allegations surrounding Downing Street are not ‘cutting through’ to voters”, reports The Guardian.

Speaking during a visit to a factory in Wrexham yesterday, Johnson said the “stuff” being gossiped about in Westminster is “not what’s actually coming up on the doorstep or the issues being raised with me”.

Opposition MPs tell a very different story from the campaign trail, however.

Navendu Mishra, Labour MP for Stockport, told the newspaper that while the government was benefitting from a “vaccine boost” that had lifted public spirits, “I’ve been on the doorstep over the weekend” and “several people have mentioned” the sleaze row.

But Conservative MPs played down the extent of complaints about lobbying and the like, with an unnamed northern Tory insisting it was a “Westminster bubble issue”.

In the long term

The sleaze claims appear to have had little impact with voters so far, but that “could change the longer this goes on and should more revelations come out”, says Beth Rigby at Sky News.

“There are already seven inquiries into the lobbying scandal, and Mr Cummings is due to make a select committee appearance next month,” she writes. And this week’s fresh “slew of allegations suggests the leaking won’t stop”.

Success for the Tories at the ballot box in May may buy Johnson “political breathing space”, Rigby continues.

“But as for the substance of the allegations made against him in recent days, those will have to be answered and it could cost him in the longer run.”

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