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© Reuters. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson prepares to receive Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at Downing Street, in London, Britain May 5, 2022. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

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By Andrew MacAskill and Elizabeth Piper

LONDON (Reuters) -British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party lost control of traditional strongholds in London and suffered setbacks elsewhere in local elections, with voters punishing his government over a series of scandals.

As early results suggested Johnson, a former London mayor, was losing support in southeastern England, his supporters moved in quickly on Friday to say it was not time to oust a leader they said could still “get things done” to help the economy.

Johnson’s party was ousted in Wandsworth, a low-tax Conservative stronghold since 1978, part of a trend in the British capital where voters used the elections to express anger over a cost-of-living crisis and fines imposed on the prime minister for breaking his own COVID-19 lockdown rules.

For the first time, the opposition Labour Party won the council of Westminster, a district where most government institutions are located. The Conservatives also lost control of the borough of Barnet, which has been held by the party in all but two elections since 1964.

“Fantastic result, absolutely fantastic. Believe you me, this is a big turning point for us from the depths of 2019 general election,” said Labour leader Keir Starmer.

Johnson, speaking in west London, said it had been a “tough night” in some parts of the country and his government had heard the demands from people for more help with the cost of living.

“We’ve had a tough night in some parts of the country, but on the other hand, in other parts of the country, you’re still seeing Conservatives going forward and making quite remarkable gains,” he told reporters.

“The big lesson that I take from this is that this is a message from voters that what they want us to do … is focus on the big issues that matter to them: taking the country forward, making sure that we fix the post COVID economic aftershock.”

The overall tally due later on Friday will offer the most important snapshot of public opinion since Johnson won the Conservative Party’s biggest majority in more than 30 years in the 2019 national vote.

Johnson became the first British leader in living memory to have broken the law while in power when he was fined last month for attending a birthday gathering in his office in 2020, breaking pandemic social distancing rules then in place.

The loss of key councils in London, where the Conservatives were almost wiped out, will increase pressure on Johnson, who faces the possibility of more police fines over his attendance at other lockdown-breaking gatherings.

But with indications support for his party held up in areas of central and northern England that backed leaving the European Union in 2016, some Conservatives said Johnson’s critics were unlikely to have the numbers to trigger a coup, for now.

OUTSIDE LONDON

The elections held on Thursday will decide almost 7,000 council seats, including all those in London, Scotland and Wales, and a third of the seats in most of the rest of England.

Johnson upended normal British politics in the 2019 election by winning and then promising to improve living standards in former industrial areas in central and northern England.

But since then, he has been mired in scandal and is facing a growing cost-of-living crisis. The Bank of England warned on Thursday that Britain risks a double-whammy of a recession and inflation above 10%.

Outside the capital, the Conservatives lost overall control of councils in Southampton, Worcester and West Oxfordshire.

But the party has not done as badly as some polls had predicted. One poll in the run-up to the elections said the Conservatives could lose about 800 council seats.

John Curtice, a professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, said early trends suggested the Conservatives were on course to lose about 250 seats. He said the results suggested Labour may not emerge as the largest party at the next election.

Oliver Dowden, the chairman of the Conservatives, said the party “had some difficult results” after weeks of what he described as “challenging headlines”, but that Labour was not on course to win the next general election.

“What you see in the Prime Minister is somebody who gets things done, a change maker,” Dowden said. “We need that kind of bold leadership …”

But some local Conservative leaders urged Johnson to resign, with Carlisle council leader John Mallinson saying it was hard when campaigning “to drag the debate back to local issues”.

For Daisy Mitchell, 32, in Wandsworth, the vote was an expression of people’s anger over the lockdown-breaking parties.

“Just because he didn’t follow his own rules. A lot of us did … people didn’t see family members for a long time,” she said. “So I think a lot of people thought why can’t you follow your rules?”

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