Boris Johnson is no stranger to making headlines, but the name of Britain’s former prime minister hardly crosses the lips of the opposition Labour Party candidate battling to replace him in his former outer London parliamentary seat.
Instead, Danny Beales is concentrating on the issues he says are most troubling voters in the constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip – high inflation, weak economic growth, car charges and rising taxes and mortgage costs.
The attack lines adopted by Beales, 34, are an ominous sign for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who has promised disillusioned voters his governing Conservatives are the only way to revive an economy that is being hurt by stubbornly high inflation.
But opinion polls suggest Sunak could lose the so-called by-election in Uxbridge and South Ruislip on Thursday, and most likely two others elsewhere – results that would mark the worst one-day outcome for a governing party in more than half a century.
A general election must be held within the next 18 months.
In an election debate last week, Beales made just one comment about Johnson, who dramatically quit parliament when he was accused by a parliamentary committee of lying about parties at his official residence during the coronavirus pandemic, answering “no” when asked if Johnson was honest.
He swiftly went back to concentrating his attacks on the government’s handling of the economy and public services.
“You know, from knocking on doors, what people are interested in,” Beales told Reuters. “People are all talking about what is going on with the economy and the crisis that is affecting so many ordinary lives.”
While the contests are to fill seats vacated by Johnson and two other lawmakers, they are also in part a referendum on Sunak’s leadership.
Sunak, who has been prime minister for just nine months, asked voters at the start of the year to judge him on five pledges: to halve inflation, get the economy growing, cut the national debt, reduce health waiting lists and stop boats carrying asylum seekers crossing the Channel to Britain.
He has failed to achieve any so far.
Sixty-four percent of voters said the economy was the most important issue for them in a YouGov survey earlier this month.
Uxbridge and South Ruislip, on the western edge of London, is traditionally a Conservative stronghold. The Conservatives have won the seat at every general election since 1970.
Labour is confident the party will win and the betting odds suggest Labour has a more than 90% chance of taking the seat, which returned Johnson with a majority of 7,210 in 2019.
Labour’s message is more focused on national issues such as the economy and mortgages, while the Conservatives are hammering local issues.
Maria Genjatovic, 73, a retired businesswoman who voted for the Conservatives most of her life, said she would vote for Labour, describing Britain as like “a bucket full of holes” with high inflation, long waiting lists to use the state-run health service and rising mortgage rates.
Paul Mathews, 52, who works in human resources and has voted for different political parties, said he was worried about the economy, but could not back Labour after the party’s London mayor expanded the anti-pollution Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) from inner London to the suburbs, including Uxbridge.
From next month, drivers of vehicles not meeting the latest emissions standards will face a 12.50 pound ($16) daily charge.
Mathews said it was a “crazy policy” meaning two family members would have to pay almost 400 pounds a month in extra levies unless they buy new cars.
This is the message the Conservative candidate, Steve Tuckwell, 54, a local councillor and businessman, continues to focus in on even though he admits it is a “very challenging backdrop”.
“But it is also an incredibly challenging time for other countries as well,” he told Reuters.
A Labour member of parliament, who has spent time canvassing in the area, said while voters complained to him about the economy, the ULEZ issue was going to hurt the party.
“It is going to be close, but I think we are just going to squeeze through,” he said.