This week, on the streets of Swindon, in the south of England, one phrase could be heard repeatedly: “It’s one rule for them and another for the rest of us.”
A sense of outrage has gripped the country following the Downing Street revelations parties held during the coronavirus lockdown, even as Britons were asked to follow rules prohibiting large social gatherings.
So far only a handful of Conservative MPs have publicly called for the resignation of Boris Johnson since he admitted to having attended a “bring your own liquor” gathered in Downing Street Garden in May 2020 during England’s first lockdown.
But this weekend represents a pivotal moment for the prime minister, as Conservative MPs return to their constituencies to gauge the national mood following his partial apology: Johnson told Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Representatives Commons on Wednesday that he thought the May 2020 meeting was a “work event.”
Many conservatives have been willing to wait for a imminent report from Sue Gray, a senior civil servant, at parties and accusations of breaking the widespread Covid rule, but MPs are braced for a huge backlash from the public and from Conservative campaigners.
In Swindon, Conservative councilor Bazil Solomon said the latest news on two parties in Downing Street on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral in April 2021 it was “horrible”.
“When the [Gray] The report is available on what happened, those who significantly broke the rules of Covid-19. . . they should reconsider their jobs,” he added.
“[Johnson] is going to be replaced. . . at the end of the day you can only apologize to a certain extent.”
Johnson has proven his political mettle over the years by winning the London mayoralty in 2008, the Brexit referendum in 2016 and the 2019 general election.
But in the midst of the “partygate” scandal it seems that it is becoming an electoral ballast, which is making many Conservative MPs and activists nervous ahead of local elections in England on May 5.
An opinion poll this week by Savanta ComRes found that two-thirds of people thought the prime minister should resign, including 42 per cent of those who voted Conservative in the 2019 election.
On Thursday, executive members of the Tory Association of Sutton Coldfield in the West Midlands voted unanimously that they had no confidence in Johnson.
Simon Ward, Conservative Leader of Sutton Coldfield Council, said the government had asked people to make “mass sacrifices” during the pandemic for two years. “We have the right to expect everyone in government. . . follow the same rules,” he added.
Grassroots Conservatives, an influential group that previously backed Johnson, has emailed supporters asking if they think the prime minister should step down.
Swindon, where major employers include the Nationwide Building Society, was once under the control of the Labor Party, both locally and nationally.
In recent years, however, the Tories have consolidated control of both Westminster constituencies (Swindon North and Swindon South, the latter held by former Cabinet Minister Robert Buckland), as well as the local authority, where the year last year increased their majority to 15 seats.
But local Tories are increasingly concerned about local elections in May and whether they will lose seats because of partygate.
David Renard, Conservative Leader of Swindon Council, said it was a “fact” that the national situation was of public concern.
“But it’s too early to see what the impact will be when local elections are four months away,” he added. “I hope that when people vote in this election, they think about what the party has done for them locally.”
However, Julia Bishop, a long-time Conservative councilor in Swindon, said local elections were often influenced by national events.
He cited the fallout from the 1982 Falklands, when 15 Conservatives were elected to Swindon councilors amid the popularity of then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Bishop said he thought Johnson had “probably gone too far this time” by breaking Covid rules and then making “dumb excuses” when he was caught.
“Sometimes he seems like a stranger to the truth,” he added. “In[prime minister’s questions]. . . people laughed at the ridiculousness of his excuses.”
Some of Bishop’s anger stems from the fact that his brother died in 2020 and the family was only able to hold a restricted funeral due to Covid rules. “Millions of people have similar stories,” he said.
An opinion poll by the local newspaper, the Swindon Advertiser, this week found strong public disapproval of Johnson’s behaviour: 79 per cent of people wanted him to resign.
Rebecca Hollinshead, who works on the doorstep of the Brass Monkey cocktail bar in Swindon’s old town, said she had backed Johnson on Brexit but now thought he was “mocking Britain”.
It was possible to find people in Swindon who thought partygate was a storm in a teacup. Rachel Irving, a retiree, said many people had ignored lockdown rules, adding: “I would always vote Conservative anyway.”
But she seemed to be in a small minority. At the Savoy pub in central Swindon, there was almost universal disapproval of the Prime Minister.
Steve McNally, a carpenter, said. “I would say 9 out of 10 people are mad at him right now.”
Colleen Mundy, a store clerk, said Johnson needed a “kick in the butt” for writing the Covid rules and then ignoring them. “People are angry because they lost their loved ones and he was in the garden drinking with a lot of people,” he added.
Additional reporting by Miles Ellingham in London