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Ahead of the local and devolved elections next week, the government has spent the past seven days fighting off accusations of sleaze, with the furore over the prime minister’s flat refurbishment hitting new heights. This week we consider what impact the scandal will have on the government’s agenda and electoral chances, as well as the resignation of Arlene Foster and the latest developments in the fight against COVID-19.

Curtains for Boris?

The sleaze scandals that have embroiled the prime minister stepped up another gear this week, as the Electoral Commission announced that it would be launching an investigation into where the initial funding came from for the refurbishment of his Downing Street flat. The PM has reiterated that he had covered the cost of the redecoration “personally”, but has not explained who funded the initial bill.

The scandal kicked up a gear last weekend when the prime minister’s former adviser Dominic Cummings responded to Downing Street’s allegations that he had leaked text messages sent between Johnson and the businessman Sir James Dyson. Refuting the allegations, Cummings launched a blistering attack on the prime minister, stating that he had fallen “far below" the standards of "competence" the "country deserves", by allegedly asking Conservative party donors to fund his flat renovations.

With the local and devolved nations’ elections less than a week away, Labour sought to exploit the issue, with leader Sir Keir Starmer stating that the government was characterised by "dodgy contracts, jobs for mates and cash for access" at Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs). Starmer also asked Johnson to confirm whether he stated that he would rather see "bodies pile high" than announce a third lockdown in England, which Johnson duly denied saying. Should irrefutable evidence of Johnson saying this ever be revealed however, the PM would be in big trouble as intentionally misleading parliament is stated as grounds for resignation under the ministerial code.

With the government on the ropes this week, it will be hoping that the public keeps in mind the successful COVID-19 vaccine roll-out ahead of the elections next week. In light of these difficulties for the government, you would expect Labour to be making significant gains in the polls. This is not the case however, with the latest YouGov poll giving the Tories an 11 point lead. Should Labour have a poor showing next week, its leader Sir Keir Starmer will likely come under increasing pressure as the current political environment should be fertile ground for any opposition party on track for government.

Arlene ousted

If you thought Boris Johnson had a bad week, then spare a thought for Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader and Northern Irish first minister Arlene Foster, who was forced to announce that she would be resigning from both positions later this year. The news came after 20 assembly members and four of the party’s MPs signed a letter of no-confidence in her leadership, making her position untenable. 

Foster has been under increasing pressure in recent months due to the fallout from the implementation of the Northern Irish protocol which imposed a customs border in the Irish sea, alienating many in the unionist community. The party’s Free Presbyterian religious base was also upset that Foster abstained on an assembly vote to ban gay conversion therapy, and there were fears that without a new leader many of the party’s core voters would not turn out for the assembly election next May.

While expected, the move is highly unusual for the DUP, who have never ousted a party leader before. There is also no front runner for the position either, with MPs Gavin Robinson and Sir Jeffrey Donaldson both expected to throw their hat in the ring, alongside agriculture minister Edwin Poots. Whoever does win the leadership election will have a difficult job on their hands, with an election only one year away and significant work required to unite the unionist community and help the Northern Irish economy recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Vaccine boost

While Westminster and Belfast were focused on the sleaze and resignation stories, the UK’s vaccine programme hit a new milestone this week as all over 40s were invited to book an appointment for their first jab. Among them was health secretary Matt Hancock who received his jab from England’s deputy chief medical officer, Jonathan Van-Tam, on Thursday morning. The photos made the front pages, and for one day at least helped to remind the public of the vaccine roll-out, as the government seeks to tout its success before Britons go to the polls next week.

With the UK on track to hit its target of offering a first dose to all adults by the end of July, attention has now turned to plans to administer booster jabs from the autumn. It has been announced that a further 60 million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine have been ordered to facilitate the campaign later this year, as the government remains concerned that new vaccine resistant COVID-19 strains could reverse the progress made so far.

This is especially true because of the situation in India, where at least 300,000 COVID-19 cases have been registered each day for the past week. The surge in cases also dashed the prime minister’s plans to visit the country this week to kick off negotiations for a post-Brexit trade deal. Given the political pressure Johnson has found himself under, a trip out of the country to tout Britain’s new global trading relationships would have served as a useful distraction. However, with the infection and death rate so high at the moment, any visit would no doubt have been perceived as hindering the Indian government’s ability to protect its citizens, meaning cancellation was inevitable.

Decision time

Following the postponement of local and devolved elections last year, next week will see voters elect new Scottish and Welsh parliaments, 39 police and crime commissioners, approximately 5,000 local councillors and 13 directly elected mayors, including in London.  Dubbed “super Thursday”, this will be a key test for all the major political parties, with the next general election now just three years away. It is also the first chance for the electorate to render its judgement on the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, and after eleven years in power you might expect significant losses for the Conservatives. However, the party is still riding high in the polls and could very well exceed expectations and even gain a parliamentary seat from Labour in the Hartlepool by-election.

The implications of these elections for the union could also be significant, with the SNP seeking to secure a Holyrood majority to push forward its plans for a second Scottish independence referendum. While Johnson has pledged to block an independence referendum, should it be approved by the Scottish parliament it will be incredibly difficult for him to not reluctantly accept the democratic mandate for a second vote, especially as the prime minister secured his own mandate by claiming that the “will of the people must be respected” over Brexit.

What’s next?

Due to the pandemic, most of the vote counting for next week’s elections will not be taking place until Friday, meaning you can settle in for an exciting weekend of election coverage. The government will be hoping that attention in the last days of the campaign moves on from the sleaze allegations, although this is extremely unlikely.

Despite the doom and gloom for the government, it may very well have a successful election night and gaining Hartlepool from Labour would indicate that the scandals have not diminished the party’s standing in so-called “red wall” seats. This result would be a disaster for Labour though, as it would indicate that the party is performing worse now than it did in the 2019 election, its worst defeat since 1935. A victory for the Conservatives could well be twinned with a SNP victory in Scotland however, and the very real threat of an independent Scotland under Johnson’s watch.