Local election results that neither rescue nor sink Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson will not be sunk by the latest results, but he's not totally safe yet. Credit: PA

There are two big questions in UK politics, neither of which has been decisively resolved by local election results in England so far - and probably won't be by the time all UK results are announced over the coming few days.

They are:

1) will and should Conservative MPs remove Boris Johnson as their leader and the country's prime minister?

2) has Keir Starmer set Labour on a path that could see the party win the next general election?

In London, the swing from Tory to Labour of three symbolically important councils -  Barnet, Wandsworth and above-all Westminster - is humiliating for a prime minister who still boasts of his erstwhile popularity as two-time London mayor.

And it confirms the durability of the big Brexit-connected historic switch in British politics: that much of the very rich south is now hostile territory for the Tories, whereas swathes of the working class midlands and north remain relatively fertile ground for Johnson's Conservatives.

To put that into seat numbers, in London by breakfast time Labour had won 44 council seats in London and actually lost 6 net outside London - and this net loss beyond the capital still saw Starmer's party gain control of Southampton council in the south.

Looking around what was called the Red Wall of the Midlands and North before Johnson's Tories picked up so many seats in these former Labour heartlands just over two years ago, there are signs from the local elections that the tide may be turning gently for Starmer's Labour, but not turning dramatically or decisively.

The underlying trend, as Strathclyde University's Sir John Curtice points out, is that the Tories' share of the national vote appears to be six percentage points below what it was in the 2019 general election, and is four points lower than in the 2017 general election.

For a Tory party that has been in power since 2010, this is neither a great performance nor is it meltdown.

Which of course means that the jury has to remain out on whether Johnson has been turned by his involvement in those rule-breaking Downing Street parties from his party's greatest electoral asset into a definitive liability - and whether Starmer's leadership can take Labour only part of the way to being a credible party of government.

So what next?

Tory MPs tell me that Johnson can breathe a sigh of relief that these results on their own aren't sufficient cause for them to try to throw him out in the next few days.

But nor does the Tory performance rescue him.

Johnson's fate, they say, will be determined by whether he receives more fines for attending rule breaking parties, how trenchant the criticism of him will be when Sue Gray's long-delayed report into the parties is published, and whether the Tories lose two looming by-elections, in Red-Wall Wakefield and Tory heartlands Tiverton and Honiton.

In the meantime, there are at least four wannabe Tory leaders quietly and surreptitiously putting in place the campaigning teams and machinery, just in case Johnson is forced out before the summer recess.

As for Starmer, he can be reassured that Labour's victory in Barnet, with its significant Jewish community, is proof that he has succeeded in persuading voters he has cut out the cancer of antisemitism from his party.

That is no small achievement; it means for many swing voters throughout the UK voting Labour is no longer unthinkable.

But as a cost-of-living crisis devastates the lives of so many people on low incomes, Starmer could perhaps have hoped more of them would be returning to Labour than seems to be the case - especially given the evidence from his candidates' door-knocking that voters are furious with Johnson for eating birthday cake during lockdown when they were banned from holding the hands of dying loved ones.

So although these are better results for Labour - and indeed for the Lib Dems and Greens - than they are for Johnson's Conservatives, their true meaning is disillusion with the party of government rather than ecstatic love for the challenger.