Dispatch

The Biggest Threat to Boris Johnson Isn’t Jeremy Corbyn

The British prime minister isn’t afraid of the Labour party’s leader. To retain his parliamentary seat in an increasingly diverse west London district, Johnson is facing a tight race to fend off Ali Milani, a 25-year-old immigrant from Iran.

Ali Milani, the British Labour Party's parliamentary candidate in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, speaks to campaign volunteers before canvassing in the Eastcote area of London on Dec. 7.
Ali Milani, the British Labour Party's parliamentary candidate in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, speaks to campaign volunteers before canvassing in the Eastcote area of London on Dec. 7. Niklas Halle'n/AFP via Getty Images

LONDON—As night sets in just after 4 p.m. and only a few Christmas lights illuminate the streets, Ali Milani, the local Labour Party candidate, affixes his headlamp and keeps canvassing.

He and his volunteers had already knocked on 3,000 doors on a recent, rainy weekend as they approached the corner of two quiet Conservative Party strongholds: Church Lane and Church Close. Milani reassured his supporters, a team that ranges from teenagers to pensioners, not to worry if the feedback was stiff. But as the first door cracked open, an elderly woman on the other end lit up and exclaimed: “Anything to oust Boris!”

If Milani succeeds, he will do what has never been done in British history: win the parliamentary seat of a serving prime minister.

Optimism and surprise have defined the long-shot parliamentary bid of Ali Milani, a 25-year-old immigrant who came to the United Kingdom from Iran when he was five. If he succeeds, he will do what has never been done in British history: win the parliamentary seat of a serving prime minister. Although the constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip was long considered a Conservative safe seat—safe enough for Johnson never to have to worry about local challengers—that sense of certainty has been slipping away.

The best available projections, based on national polls, still show Milani to be trailing Johnson 37 percent to 50 percent, but an upset is within the margin of error. In a statistically foreseeable reversal of fortune, YouGov’s latest research says, Milani may best Johnson with 44 percent of the vote to the prime minister’s 43 percent. Onward, a right-wing think tank, says the constituency’s high ratio of young people has made the seat vulnerable.” Conservative Campaign Headquarters have reportedly labeled the prime minister’s seat at risk as well. There has even been talk within Johnson’s party of relocating the prime minister to a safer constituency. Now, with just days to go and a wave of Labour activists buoying Milani’s campaign, the race here has become even more uncertain.


Johnson alights from the “battle bus” as he arrives for a campaign visit to Fergusons Transport in Washington, west of Sunderland, northeast England, on Dec. 9.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson alights from the “battle bus” as he arrives for a campaign visit to Fergusons Transport in Washington, west of Sunderland, northeast England, on Dec. 9. Ben Stansall/Getty Images

This was not the case in 2015, when Johnson, then the mayor of London, decided to stand for election in Uxbridge as rumors swirled that he was gearing up to challenge Prime Minister David Cameron. Born in New York, raised between London and Brussels, and a resident of the north London borough of Islington, Johnson had no relationship with his new constituency, much as he lacked links to his prior constituency of Henley in Oxfordshire. However, the British have no compunction when it comes to carpetbagging, as this sort of political opportunism is called in the United States, and no one batted an eye—least of all Johnson’s new constituents who hoped their political fortunes would rise with his. In 2015, Johnson cruised to an easy victory, defeating the Labour candidate by more than 10,000 votes out of 45,000 votes cast.

Despite having followed Johnson’s calls to leave the EU in 2016, voting for Brexit by a 57 percent majority, the constituency was beginning to turn on its new MP.

But in the two tumultuous years that followed, as Britain voted to leave the European Union and Cameron resigned, the ground started shifting in Uxbridge. Despite having followed Johnson’s calls to leave the EU in 2016, voting for Brexit by a 57 percent majority, the constituency was beginning to turn on its new MP.

The first issue was Johnson’s crowd-pleasing pledge in 2015 to “lie down with you in front of those bulldozers” and stop the expansion of Heathrow Airport. The plans to build a third runway at Heathrow have been deeply unpopular in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, which, sitting just three miles north of the airport, would fall directly under the new flight path and would see the displacement of its residents. Anti-expansion activists have also brought attention to the partial demolition of villages and green areas nearby, as well as the surge in pollution levels which construction for the new runway would bring about.

However, even as Johnson became a senior figure in the Conservative Party and started to serve as then Prime Minister Theresa May’s foreign minister, the Conservative government continued with the plans, touting the jobs it would bring and the message it would send—that Britain is “open for business.” Although Johnson publicly broke from May in expressing his opposition to her decision to greenlight the expansion, some of his constituents were left hoping for more. They looked to the decisive action of Zac Goldsmith, the former London mayoral candidate and high-profile Conservative MP representing nearby Richmond Park, who caused a stir by resigning his seat over his party’s support for the new runway. However, Johnson stayed put, describing the expansion as “undeliverable” and leaving it there.  

Johnson holds a fish with Lia Nici, Conservative candidate for Great Grimsby, during a campaign visit to Grimsby Fish Market on Dec. 9.

Johnson holds a fish with Lia Nici, Conservative candidate for Great Grimsby, during a campaign visit to Grimsby Fish Market on Dec. 9. Ben Stansall/Getty Images

Then came High Speed 2 (HS2), a long-awaited proposal for a high-speed railway that would run from London to Birmingham, Manchester, and Leeds. Fearing disruptions from construction and the demolition of nearby woodlands to build the new tracks, Uxbridge residents linked up with outside activists to mount a substantial pressure campaign that could bring the plans to a halt. They didn’t have much luck. Parliament approved the proposal with a sizable majority as Johnson missed the vote.

In addition to his absence on issues of local importance, there were mounting frustrations with the Conservative government in which Johnson served. In less than a year as prime minister, May had seen her net popularity fall from plus 10 percent in the summer of 2016 to negative 30 percent in the summer of 2017. Although the Conservatives still polled far better than Labour, which was bogged down amid internal divisions and anti-Semitism accusations, voters were pining for a change. That opportunity came when May decided to call for a snap election in the summer of 2017, a risky gamble which she would ultimately regret. Losing 13 seats and the party’s outright majority, the Conservatives found themselves in trouble.

After winning by a narrowed margin in 2015, Johnson confessed, “One thing is clear to all of us. We’ve got to listen to our constituents and listen to their concerns.”

In his adopted turf in Uxbridge, Johnson found unfamiliar trouble, too. His cozy 10,000 vote margin from 2015 had been slashed in half to 5,000. The victory was humbling, and as the scale of the Conservatives’ defeat was still being tallied, Johnson confessed, “One thing is clear to all of us. We’ve got to listen to our constituents and listen to their concerns.”

But two years later, many locals say the prime minister has done nothing of the sort. As Johnson has ascended to the nation’s highest office, there is a fear that Uxbridge and its issues have been left behind.

On Heathrow, Johnson raised eyebrows in the summer of 2018 by missing the crucial vote on the runway expansion, which passed by a large margin of 296 votes, as he took a one-day trip to Afghanistan. As the nation’s foreign secretary he had many plausible explanations for such travel, but some of his constituents assumed the worst of the quick visit. “He arranged to be away just for that day so he didn’t have to vote for or against it,” Tony Eginton, a local Labour councillor, told Foreign Policy. “It has not gone down well.”

A bulldozer placed by Greenpeace protesters outside Uxbridge tube station in Johnson’s constituency on Nov. 26. The display includes a placard with Johnson’s quote pledging to stop the expansion of Heathrow airport.

A bulldozer placed by Greenpeace protesters outside Uxbridge tube station in Johnson’s constituency on Nov. 26. The display includes a placard with Johnson’s quote pledging to stop the expansion of Heathrow airport. Kirsty O’Connor/PA Images via Getty Images

More recently, despite his headline-making pledge to lie in front of the bulldozers, Johnson informed fellow MPs that he will no longer oppose the expansion. To remind residents of the broken promise, environmental activists have parked a bulldozer in front of the local Uxbridge Tube stop.

Similarly, Johnson has signaled that the high-speed rail plans will continue. That’s likely because HS2 is believed to be an economic boon to many of the northern constituencies which Johnson’s party is hoping to win on Dec. 12; consequently, opposition to the project back in Uxbridge has been overshadowed. Nonetheless, campaigners have flocked to his constituency to raise awareness and pressure the prime minister to reverse course.

Even more damaging to his reelection bid is the fate of the local Hillingdon Hospital. The building’s structural issues have long been known to officials and constituents. However, in September, when Johnson rolled out his £2.7 billion ($3.5 billion) plan to rebuild six hospitals across the country, Hillingdon was not among them. Instead, Hillingdon was slated to share £100 million ($130 million) with 20 other hospitals that would be earmarked for drafting further proposals. One month later, as his constituents’ calls to boost funding and fast-track the building’s reconstruction were ignored, National Health Service officials had to close Hillingdon’s children’s facilities for fear of risks to the patients. Another report released recently underscored even more issues with funding and structural damage at the nearby Mount Vernon Cancer Centre, which also serves Johnson’s constituency and which has not been allocated any additional funding either.


Milani poses with campaign volunteers before canvassing in London on Dec. 7.

Milani poses with campaign volunteers before canvassing in London on Dec. 7. Niklas Halle’n/AFP via Getty Images

It is on these issues that Milani, the Labour candidate, hopes to press his case. “The big thing,” Milani told Foreign Policy, “is that I actually live here. I’m the only major candidate that lives in this constituency, goes to the same hospital, same schools, same corner shops, literally walks the same roads as everybody else.” The message is simple, and one which Johnson cannot truthfully utter himself: I know your problems because I share your problems.

For much of the past few months, Milani has canvassed across the constituency with hordes of volunteers eager to unseat the prime minister. Even on the wet and dark evenings of November and December, some 50 Labour faithful make the hour-plus trek out to Uxbridge, the last stop on its branch of the Tube’s Piccadilly line. At each door, Milani’s team asks residents about the issues most important to them, records voting intentions, makes his pitch, and hands over leaflets that announce the crux of the campaign: “We Deserve a Real Local MP.”

Although Milani is only 25 years old, it is the depth of his roots that he plays up the most. After leaving Iran at five and settling in public housing in north London, Milani moved to the Uxbridge constituency to attend Brunel University London. There he studied international relations, served as the president of the student union, and later became the vice president of Britain’s National Union of Students. In that role, he had meetings with Johnson and sparred with him on local issues that are still on his docket today: university voting stations and student loans. After graduating, Milani was elected to serve on the local council representing Heathrow Villages, the exact area at risk in the airport expansion.

From Milani’s perspective, this is what will matter most to voters come Dec. 12. Despite Johnson’s Brexit-only framing of the race and his irresistible message to “Get Brexit Done,” Milani is adamant that residents are placing their priorities on other, more immediate issues. “It’s not a Brexit election,” Milani says. “It’s about local hospitals, local schools, Heathrow, and,” he added after some hesitation, “Boris.

A group of young men walk past Johnsons Yard in Uxbridge, London, on Dec. 9.

A group of young men walk past Johnsons Yard in Uxbridge, London, on Dec. 9. Leon Neal/Getty Images

His message discipline is impressive. Although Milani associates himself with Labour’s left wing, his leaflets, comments, and writings say little of the eye-watering, and potentially unpopular, proposals of Labour’s manifesto: the nationalization of core industries, the abolition of private schools, and the sweeping tax increases, to name a few. By making simpler, uncontroversial appeals to increase police budgets and support pensioners, as one leaflet touts, Milani hopes to appeal to Johnson’s own base. And, of course, he hopes to pull disenchanted Conservative voters away from their candidate.

It is this—Johnson’s role in Milani’s campaign—that makes the race so unique. “We don’t tend to attack opposition candidates directly in the U.K.,” explained Eginton, the local Labour councillor. “You would attack the party, but it would be ungentlemanly to attack the individual.” However, there is little denying that the gloves are off in Uxbridge.

At every opportunity, Milani takes aim at Johnson’s Islamophobic remarks, aristocratic demeanor, public infidelities, and broken promises. Every mention of the prime minister triggers an epithet from the young candidate, “unprepared” being among the most common. In a more upbeat rebuke, Milani tells his volunteers, “For him to be unseated by a local, working class, immigrant Muslim. There’s a bit of poetic justice, innit?”

In late November, when Milani called in the support of Emily Thornberry, a senior Labour MP and the shadow foreign secretary, the language was less sparing. Reflecting on her time as Johnson’s opposite number, Thornberry told a gathering of volunteers, “I have never shadowed anybody as lazy and incompetent and heartless and thoughtless as Boris Johnson … He doesn’t even know how many children he’s got!” “Shame! the audience yelled back.

Milani speaks to campaign volunteers before canvassing on Dec. 7.

Milani speaks to campaign volunteers before canvassing on Dec. 7. NIKLAS HALLE’N/AFP via Getty Images

Although Milani throws in the frequent ad hominem and does not shy from saying where he differs with the prime minister—on Brexit, on austerity, on Conservative policies such as universal credit—the point to which he inevitably returns is much more basic and bureaucratic. Put simply: Johnson is not doing his job.

“There’s a lot of case work that doesn’t get dealt with because he’s never here,” Milani often repeats in one form or another. Although he could spin the cuts to local services into a larger narrative about the perils of Tory austerity, he doesn’t. He keeps it simple, repeating that Johnson “only ever shows up for photo-ops.Milani’s promises are simple, too. In place of his party’s grandiose pledge to “bring about a radical decentralisation of power,” Milani’s offer is to “pick up the phone when you call and pop round when you need.”  

Although his odds remain long (5 to 1 on online betting sites), Milani’s hopes are high. In large part, this is because the prime minister seems to have played perfectly into Milani’s narrative. When Johnson declined to attend the local hustings, the constituency-level debates that are core components of Britain’s general elections, Milani was handed fresh evidence to speak of the prime minister’s “utter contempt for the constituency,” as he put it in an interview. So far, Johnson’s election strategy in Uxbridge seems to be limited to an aggressive social-media campaign, spending up to £1,178 ($1,550) on the constituency in a single day—a hefty sum by British standards. But lacking any ground game, the important canvassing work that has fueled Milani’s unexpected appeal, it is anybody’s guess how well Johnson is faring. “I think I saw a picture of Boris on my street, but I haven’t actually seen him on my street,” one Uxbridge resident said with a shrug.

Critics tie Milani to the Labour Party’s broader struggles with anti-Semitism, a grave issue which has cost the party several of its MPs and which has led Britains chief rabbi to write that with Labour “the very soul of our nation is at stake.”

Even as Milani’s national profile rises, however, the attention has come with some baggage. When Milani was a teenager, he replied to someone on Twitter saying, “nah u won’t mate. It’ll cost u a pound #jew.” This has encouraged critics to tie Milani to the Labour Party’s broader struggles with anti-Semitism, a grave issue which has cost the party several of its MPs and which has led Britains chief rabbi to write that with Labour “the very soul of our nation is at stake.” Since the tweet first surfaced over two years ago, Milani has routinely apologized, stressed the “political education” he has received with age, and pointed to offensive comments about women, Muslims, and ethnic minorities, for which Johnson—30 years Milani’s senior—has refused to apologize. However, as the issue of anti-Semitism continues to be a focal point of the race and of British politics more broadly, there is little Milani can do to shake the label.

It is also clear that his party remains the underdog. The same YouGov data which gives Milani a low but foreseeable chance of winning also projects that the Labour Party will lose 32 seats and that the Conservative Party will pick up 61. Some polling has gone further to suggest that Labour could lose up to 100 seats. Although this may not reflect actual opinion in Uxbridge (YouGov uses a synthetic model for the constituency, not actual on-the-ground polling), Labour’s sagging popularity is sure to weigh Milani down.

For many voters, the problem with the party—and all candidates associated with it—is its leader, Corbyn, who ranks as the most unpopular opposition leader in the history of British polling. In recent weeks, Corbyn’s 61 percent negative opinion rating has sunk further due to his refusal to take a stance on Brexit and his refusal to apologize for anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. In the past, Corbyn’s fights with his party’s moderate members, his reluctance to fully embrace the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism, his blocking of investigations into anti-Semitism allegations against the party, and his comments that members of Hamas and Hezbollah were his “friends” have made it difficult for many voters (Labour supporters included) to vote for the party with Corbyn still in charge.

An anti-Johnson sticker is seen on an unused cigarette vending machine in Uxbridge on Dec. 9.

An anti-Johnson sticker is seen on an unused cigarette vending machine in Uxbridge on Dec. 9. Leon Neal/Getty Images

Nevertheless, there is good reason not to overread public sentiment as it is currently being reported and projected. Having famously misjudged Britain’s 2015 general election, 2016 Brexit referendum, 2017 general election, and even its local elections in May 2019, Britain’s polls are generally not to be trusted. With Milani only 5,000 votes away from snagging the prime minister’s seat, and with the prime minister having lost 5,000 votes in the prior election, anything is possible.

Strangely, even if Johnson were to lose his seat, it may also still be possible for him to remain as prime minister, provided his party wins control of Parliament. “The Conservatives would send an MP to the House of Lords, or give someone a knighthood and a retirement, to put Johnson back in office,” suspected Michael Burleigh, a leading British historian. No matter the outcome in Uxbridge, the thinking goes, Johnson will be able to muscle his way back into the party and back into the nation’s top job.

With so many safe Conservative seats across Britain, why would Johnson choose an increasingly diverse district in liberal London?

The only question now is how Johnson could possibly have left himself in this position. With so many safe Conservative seats across Britain and no qualms about carpetbagging, why would Johnson choose an increasingly diverse district in liberal London?

The question is more confounding when you look at the data. In the 2017 election, if at least 40 percent of a constituency was made up of ethnic minorities, the constituency had a 97.5 percent chance of voting Labour. Earlier this year, Uxbridge and South Ruislip’s population inched up to 40.9 percent ethnic minorities—making the constituency one of only three in the country which is both diverse and whose incumbent is a Conservative. When Milani, an ethnic minority himself, says the numbers are on his side, he’s not wrong.

With two days to go, it’s anybody’s guess why Johnson, with all the political resources and capital at his disposal, would make his own electoral fight so difficult. Thornberry, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary and a longtime observer of Johnson’s ways, struggles to explain it. “We really thought he would do a chicken run and find himself a safer seat,” Thornberry told Foreign Policy.

 “Maybe he’s a brave man,” she added. “Or maybe he just hasn’t thought it through.”

Stephen Paduano is a journalist based in London, and an associate of the IDEAS Institute at the London School of Economics.

 Twitter: @StephenPaduano