Boris Johnson on Tuesday admitted that the government “can do more” to help families struggling with the cost-of-living crisis, but warning that a big new support package risked pushing up inflation and rates.
The UK prime minister, speaking two days before local elections in England, Scotland and Wales, said his government had to be “prudent” and that high levels of extra public spending could lead to an “inflationary spiral”.
Conservative party strategists admit that the cost-of-living crunch is by far the biggest issue for voters ahead of Thursday’s council elections and predict that the party is on course to lose hundreds of seats.
Labor is hoping to seize control of some councils but is playing down the prospect of big gains, partly because the party did well when these local authority areas were previously fought over in 2018.
Johnson, speaking to ITV’s Good Morning Britain for the first time in almost five years, apologised again for breaking the law in the partygate scandal.
He insisted that the government was already doing a “huge amount” to help people with rising energy bills, but repeated a warning by chancellor Rishi Sunak about the dangers of a big new injection of support.
“If we have an inflationary spiral of the kind that could be triggered, you will see interest rates going up,” he said, adding that would create “an even bigger problem” and feed through to higher mortgage costs.
But he accepted that a £9bn package of support announced by Sunak in his Spring Statement in March was “not going to be enough immediately to cover everybody’s costs”. More government support for families is expected in the autumn.
The Conservatives and Labor have both sought to play down their prospects in the local elections on Thursday.
About 200 councils across England, Scotland and Wales are holding elections, with some where all seats are up for grabs, and others where only a third will be fought over.
Chris Curtis, head of political polling at the market research firm Opinium, said that beyond Scotland, where the Conservatives would “almost certainly come in a third place” behind the Scottish National party and Labor, the results in England “will not look too terrible for the Touries in terms of seats gained and lost”.
He added: “On the headline numbers, I just don’t think we’re heading for a high number of losses [for the Conservatives] — we’re talking fewer than 500. Labor is now slightly ahead of the Tries in intention voting polls, compared to a neck-and-neck result when these seats were last fought in 2018, but that isn’t enough of a change for a dramatic upset.”
Psephologists Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher said that the 2018 local elections represented “the high-water mark of Labor’s recent performance” in England, Scotland and Wales, adding that the party would struggle to make significant gains on Thursday.
In an analysis in the Local Government Chronicle, Rallings and Thrasher said that Labor “will do well to avoid making standing still rather than picking up gains seem rather underwhelming when the postmortem takes place. For the Conservatives, by contrast, the less dramatic results, the more they can claim not to be suffering traditional ‘midterm blues'”.
One Conservative strategist said the party could lose 800 seats across England, Scotland and Wales based on how it was several percentage points behind Labor in national opinion polls.
Another Tory strategist said central London would be “bad” for the party along with “affluent commuter belt seats” surrounding the UK capital, but other parts of England would be “less bad”.
Starmer, who became Labor leader in April 2020, said the party had the “wind in our sails” ahead of Thursday’s elections. “We are in a position where we are just ahead in the polls,” he added. “That is remarkable in two years.”
Labor insiders said they would be focused on national vote share on Thursday and gains in former heartlands where the Conservatives took constituencies off their party at the 2019 general election.
One Labor official said the party’s London results in 2018 were “our best result in 50 years and the worst result for the Tories ever”, adding that suggestions it might seize Wandsworth and Westminster councils off the Conservatives were “an old expectation management trick”.