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UK votes in local polls dominated by cost-of-living crisis

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Boris waves at the media as he arrives holding the leading of his dog Dilyn to vote at a polling station in London Thursday, May 5, 2022. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

LONDON — People in Britain are voting Thursday in local elections that will decide the makeup of local authorities across the country — and possibly the fate of embattled Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Polling stations opened at 7 a.m. in contests for thousands of local council seats in England, Scotland, and Wales. Voting ends at 10 p.m. (2100GMT), with most of the counting taking place Friday. Opinion polls suggest the governing Conservatives will lose hundreds of seats in elections that are considered a barometer of public opinion.

In Northern Ireland, voters are electing a new 90-seat Assembly, with polls suggesting the Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein could win the largest number of seats, and the post of the first minister, in what would be a historic first.

The local-authority elections will decide who collects garbage, fixes potholes, and handle other essential services across the country. Conservative Party Chairman Oliver Dowden said the elections “are about one thing: who do you want running your council?”
But many voters also have other things on their minds. Across the U.K., the elections are dominated by increasing prices for food and fuel, which have sent household bills soaring.

Opposition parties are demanding the government do more to ease the cost-of-living crunch — driven by the war in Ukraine, COVID-19 pandemic disruption, and economic aftershocks from Britain’s exit from the European Union. Both left-of-center Labour and the centrist Liberal Democrats advocate a windfall tax on energy companies, which have reported record profits amid rocketing oil and gas prices.

Johnson’s Conservative government argues taxing big firms like Shell and BP would deter much-needed investment in renewable energy that’s key to meeting Britain’s climate commitments.

The election also comes after months of turmoil for Johnson, in which he became the first prime minister to be sanctioned for breaking the law in office. He was fined 50 pounds ($62) by police for attending his own surprise birthday party in June 2020 when lockdown rules barred social gatherings.

Johnson has apologized but denies knowingly breaking the rules. He faces the possibility of more fines from other parties — police are investigating a dozen gatherings — and a parliamentary investigation into whether he misled lawmakers about his behavior.

The prime minister also faces discontent within his own party. A bad result for the governing party on Thursday could lead Conservatives to try to replace Johnson with a less tarnished leader.

Labour leader Keir Starmer said the government was consumed by “a constant drip-drip of sleaze and scandal.”

“Their failure to get on with their jobs would be shameful at any time,” Starmer wrote in the Daily Mirror newspaper. “But during a once in a lifetime cost-of-living crisis, it’s a disgrace.”

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