Tory poll lead slashed as key elections loom across Britain

Labour has slashed the Tories’ poll lead in half as more voters conclude that Boris Johnson is corrupt and dishonest ahead of this week’s bumper set of local and devolved elections.

Toby Helm

The latest Opinium poll for the Observer shows the Conservative lead has fallen from 11 points to five points after a week in which the prime minister was at the centre of allegations over the refurbishment of his Downing Street flat, and criticised for reportedly saying he would rather see “bodies pile high” than order another Covid-19 lockdown.

On Thursday, voters go the polls in council elections across the UK, a key parliamentary byelection in Hartlepool, mayoral elections, and elections to the Welsh Senedd and the Scottish parliament, the last of which could mark a crucial step on the road to Scotland’s independence.

The elections are the first since the pandemic began and represent the first electoral test for Keir Starmer since he became Labour leader in April last year on a promise to rebuild the party after its disastrous 2019 general election loss.

On Saturday, Starmer and his deputy leader, Angela Rayner, were campaigning in Hartlepool, with the party battling to hold off a challenge from the Tories in a seat once regarded as one of Labour’s northern strongholds behind the so-called red wall.

Referring to Johnson, Starmer said voters did not want someone who was “unserious” as prime minister, adding that the byelection was on a knife edge. “I’m really conscious of the fact that we have got to earn every vote here, and I mean earn every vote,” he told the Observer.

Rayner said people wanted honesty and seriousness in their politicians. “They don’t want games. They don’t want party politics. They want jobs for their kids, and they want their future secured. That’s what the key message was from them.”

The Opinium poll put Labour up four points compared with a week ago, on 37%, while the Tories had fallen two points to 42%. While Labour will be unhappy to be behind, their gains since last week suggest some voters may be turning against Johnson and the Tories before polling day, after a barrage of stories about Conservative sleaze.

Johnson’s approval ratings have fallen back into negative territory (to -6 from +1 a week ago) while Starmer’s have improved from +1 to +8. Some 42% of those surveyed said they viewed Johnson as “corrupt”, up from 37% a week ago, while less than third (30%) regarded him as “clean”. Only 15% of voters viewed Starmer as corrupt and 44% saw him as “clean”.

Despite Johnson denying last week that he had said he would prefer to see “bodies pile high in their thousands” than order a third Covid lockdown, 52% of respondents disbelieve him and think he did make the remark, while only 28% think he was telling the truth.

The dent in the Tories’ and Johnson’s ratings come despite the government receiving the best approval score since last May for its handling of the pandemic. The poll found 45% approve of its performance, against 36% who disapprove.

Labour is continuing to pile pressure on Johnson over who initially paid for the refurbishment of the No 11 Downing Street flat – an upgrade estimated to have cost around £200,000 – and when. It has been reported that Johnson and his fiancee, Carrie Symonds, described the furnishings left by the prime minister’s predecessor, Theresa May, as a “John Lewis nightmare.” According to the poll, 67% of people describe John Lewis as very or fairly posh, 73% say the same about Selfridges and 43% about Habitat.

Documents relating to the refurbishment suggest permission for the works was granted in January and overseen by architectural practice Feilden + Mawson. The company did not respond on Saturday when asked who paid for their services.

Labour is continuing to ask whether the proper tax has been paid on the refurbishments. It has now raised questions with the Treasury over the payment of VAT. Tax rules mean that government departments can reclaim VAT on “non-business activity” such as repainting and decorating. The opposition is demanding to know whether any VAT refund was paid back by the prime minister if he eventually met the costs of the work.

The government has only said that there is a £30,000 annual grant to refurbish Downing Street, and that the prime minister met all additional costs. However, No 10 has not denied that the prime minister did not pay the original invoice. It is not known whether the work was originally paid for by the state, the Conservative party or directly by a Tory donor.

Labour has also accused the Tories of handing out “crony” contracts worth billions of pounds to friends of the party during the pandemic, leading Starmer to label the prime minister “Major Sleaze”.

Writing in the Northern Echo on Saturday, Starmer said: “Instead of tackling the issues that matter, the Conservative party has become hopelessly distracted by sleaze and scandal. And it’s you and your family who feel the impact.

“At next week’s elections there is a very clear choice: Labour candidates who will be relentlessly focused on jobs, tackling crime and supporting your health. Or the same old Tories: sleaze, waste, one rule for them, and another for everyone else.”