BURY, England — Oliver Henry tries to avoid discussing politics in his barbershop to prevent his clients from arguing. But when Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson was recently fined by police for violating his own coronavirus laws, the bickering at Chaps Barbers was inevitable.

“Some people despise him, and other people really love him,” he said, referring to Mr Johnson, whose Conservative party is undergoing a major election test on Thursday as the Prime Minister battles a whirlwind scandal over parties in Downing Street that are breaking the lockdown rules. violate.

While cutting a client’s hair last week, Mr Henry said he had voted for Mr Johnson’s Conservatives in the last general election, in 2019, and, grateful for the government’s financial support during the pandemic, has yet to did not intend to abandon the prime minister.

Whether millions of others feel the same when they vote Thursday in local council elections could determine Mr Johnson’s fate. His leadership is once again on the line as his own lawmakers consider a vote of no confidence that could oust him from Downing Street – and a poor result could send them over the edge.

One thing Mr Johnson has saved so far is his reputation as an election winner, someone who is able to reach voters in places like Bury, the so-called red wall regions of northern and central England. These areas traditionally voted for the opposition Labor party, but largely supported Brexit and turned to Conservatives in the 2019 general election. What happens inside them on Thursday is being watched closely.

Elections only take place in some parts of the country, with about 4,400 seats in more than 140 municipalities. Voting also takes place in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Conservatives brace for losses. They follow Labor in opinion pollsthe prime minister is embroiled in scandal and voters are feeling the pain of skyrocketing energy, food and other prices.

But things may still not be as easy for Labor as they seem. Many of the seats contested on Thursday were last up for grabs in 2018, when Labor did well, leaving it limited room to advance.

Voting is for elected representatives, known as councilors, in municipalities who oversee things like garbage collection, highway maintenance, and scheduling rules. Turnout will most likely be low, and many of those who vote will think more of potholes than Downing Street parties.

Labor is also struggling to make a major breakthrough and reclaim its old ‘red wall’ areas such as Bury, the birthplace of Robert Peel, a 19th century Conservative Prime Minister. In recent decades, the area has suffered from deindustrialization.

In Bury South, it elected Labor legislators in parliament for years for 2019, when the Conservatives narrowly took the seat. But the winner, Christian Wakeford, has recently defected to Labour. James Daly, a Conservative, won the other seat of parliament, Bury North, in 2019 by a margin of just 105 votes.

If Labor ever regains full control of Bury, now should be a good time. At the Brandlesholme Community Center and Food Bank, near Chaps Barbers, the chairman, Jo Warburton, sums up the situation on the ground in one word: “devils”.

Rising utility bills are forcing some people to choose between eating and heating, she said, adding, “No one can afford to live.” Ms Warburton recently made a plea for additional donations after she ran out of food to offer. Even employed people are increasingly needing groceries, including one person who said she had been living on soup for a week, Ms Warburton added.

Because the food bank is a charity, Ms. Warburton tries to stay out of politics. But she said that while local Labor Party politicians support the center, she has had little contact with conservatives. As for the government in London, “they have no idea about life,” she said.

Across town, a Bury resident, Angela Pomfret, said she was especially sympathetic to those who have young families. “I don’t know how people can survive,” she said. “I’m 62 and I’m having a hard time.”

Ms Pomfret said she had been unable to visit her mother, who died during the coronavirus pandemic, due to Covid restrictions, so she was initially annoyed by news of illegal parties taking place on Downing Street at the same time.

But although Ms Pomfret says she will vote for Labour, she holds no grudges against Mr Johnson and says she will not be against him personally.

Nor is there much animosity towards him at Bury Market, where Andrew Fletcher, who serves customers in a meat and poultry shed, acknowledges that trade is a bit depressed at the moment, but doesn’t blame the government. “I’m going to vote for Tory,” he said. “I don’t think Labor could do better.”

Trevor Holt, who has spent 39 years as an elected member of the Bury Council for the Labor Party and twice served as mayor of the city, believes Johnson has a lot of responsibility for the Tories.

“I think Boris Johnson is very unpopular. People think he’s a fool or a crook – and he’s probably both, isn’t he?” he said with a laugh as he sipped tea at a cafe in a building he opened as mayor in 1997. The cost of living also erodes support for conservatives, he added. His expectations are cautious, however, and he thinks Labor will “win some seats” rather than drag on to a big win.

Labor is currently in charge of Bury Council, which means it takes the blame for many things that go wrong locally, as well as some unpopular policies.

Moves to build more homes on green spaces have sparked opposition, as have plans for a clean air zone, a proposal – now being reconsidered after protests – that would charge for travel in somewhat more polluting vehicles.

To complicate matters, there is also a fringe party campaigning for more support for an area of ​​Bury called Radcliffe. In the Royal Oak pub, Mike Smith, councilor for the party Radcliffe First, who is running for reelection, describes his patch as “an archetypal forgotten ‘red wall’ town,” comparing it to Springfield, the fictional setting of ” The Simpsons’.

“If they have to build a sewer, they’ll try to put it in Radcliffe,” he said.

At another table in the pub, which steadily filled up before a football match was screened, Martin Watmough described Mr Johnson as “an absolute charlatan”, and said he would support Labor in local elections, adding that the Conservatives have lost confidence. the many voters.

But Nick Jones, the leader of the Conservatives on Bury Council, is optimistic given the political headwinds against his party following the lockdown party scandal. He hopes for a handful of seats.

Mr Jones is campaigning not so much for the Prime Minister as against Labour’s record. Speaking at another pub in Bury, he discussed the plan for a clean air zone, the state of the highways (‘a shame’, he says) and the frequency of waste collection.

When the conversation turns to Mr Johnson, who visited Bury last week, Mr Jones is careful to be loyal.

But his political tone has little to do with a scandal-prone prime minister, whose immediate fate could depend on the results of elections like this one.

The message to voters in Bury, Mr Jones said, is: “We’re not talking about Downing Street, we’re talking about your street.”

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