“Everything now is a struggle,” Mike Okoli says, in the world-weary tone he slumps into the moment a customer shuffles out of his store.
“When I started this business, my hair was all black,” insists Okoli, an affable 64-year-old who left Nigeria in the 1990s to set up an Afro-Caribbean food store on the western edge of London. But prices have soared, money has disappeared, and Okoli’s head is hairless, save for a patch of gray hiding his chin.
On the surface, there is little connecting Okoli with Boris Johnson – the most dominant and divisive presence in British politics in a generation, who took the United Kingdom out of the European Union and once told his family he wanted to be “World King.”
But until last month, Okoli could count Johnson as his neighbor. “As a person, he’s a jolly good fellow,” the shopkeeper tells CNN, one eye locked on the couriers dropping off produce, as he recalls with some pride a rare visit Johnson made to the town. “He’s somebody that you want to listen to, no matter what he’s saying.”
Okoli says he still “loves” the disgraced ex-leader’s charisma. “But…” he adds, trailing off. With Johnson, now, there is always a “but.”
Johnson represented Uxbridge and South Ruislip for eight colorful years until last month, when he stormed out of Parliament in a cloud of fury and hubris when fellow lawmakers concluded he had lied about parties held under his watch during Covid-19 lockdowns.
Now, the voters he once courted may be primed to make the most definitive statement yet that Britain is ready to move on.
A mid-term by-election to replace Johnson is taking place on Thursday, alongside two other by-elections to replace MPs elsewhere in the country. And a resurgent Labour Party – less than four years removed from an electoral wipeout at the hands of Johnson – is looking for a headline-grabbing victory that would confirm it is on the path to power.
“I thought (Johnson) was a guy who would get things done,” says Manoj Supeda, 47, who runs a dry cleaners a short walk from Okoli’s store in Uxbridge. “But I’ve lost total respect for him.
“He still hasn’t said ‘I was wrong, sorry.’ He’s tried to wriggle his way out of it, deny it,” Supeda added, expressing his disgust with the “Partygate” scandal that tanked Johnson’s once-beguiling pull with parts of the public.
“The public used to respect politicians,” he says. “(But) they all seem to be lying, the Tories.”
Supeda, who voted for Johnson in 2019, is the archetypal wavering voter in the archetypal region that the opposition party is desperate to reach. And after 13 years of political instability and upheaval, there is an inescapable sense that the government’s time has come.
“It’s just time for a change,” he says. “Give Labour a go. It can’t be any worse.”
‘We need fresh blood’
Uxbridge, like Britain, is in a rut.
The town is where the capital’s westward sprawl ends. Two Tube lines serving central London finish their journeys here, as picturesque shades of green mingle with the gray and brown hues of suburban developments. But its high streets are shrinking and the local hospital is one of the worst in Britain – rated “inadequate” by the sector’s watchdog.
And nationwide, soaring inflation, public sector strikes and the aftermath of Brexit have left families poorer and services creaking to the point of collapse. Renewing a passport, taking a train, buying groceries, seeing a doctor – virtually everything is more difficult in Britain than it once was.
Optimism, the currency Johnson once so bullishly traded in, is in short supply.
Okoli still has the energy to issue customers – many of whom he knows well – with a sing-song greeting as they step through his door. But he’s spending more and selling less, and he’s not alone. “When a customer comes in last week and buys something, and this week it’s a different price, do you think he wants to come again?” Okoli asks.
Like a number of Uxbridge residents, he has some lingering affection for Johnson and still yearns for the escapist boosterism he once provided the town. Okoli and others recalled Johnson’s Brexit campaign in 2016, an effort defined by bold promises that seem a lifetime away now.
But Johnson, suddenly, is the past, and residents in Uxbridge and South Ruislip are more concerned about the future.
“I’ve got nothing against Boris whatsoever, but we need fresh blood that actually cares about the area,” says Sonia Caetano, the owner of a Portuguese cafe on a ramshackle high street in Yiewsley, in the constituency’s more deprived southern end.
“At the moment, I’m trying to go day-by-day,” she says of her business, which has been “destroyed” as energy bills soar. “I’ve got people in their 80s that come here everyday, because there’s always a conversation … if we disappear, there’s no place for them to go.”
Caetano says she thinks “every day” about returning to Portugal, from where she migrated in 2004.
She knows Labour’s candidate for the seat vacated by Johnson, Danny Beales, who was born in the nearby hospital and lived in the constituency until he was 15, when he and his mother lost their home. She calls him “the only candidate who actually shows his face around this area.”
If Caetano’s neighbors join her in voting for Beales, Labour could claim one of the highest profile wins in recent British political history.
A tense race
Change is in the air, and Labour is set to benefit. Opinion polls confidently predict the party, led by Keir Starmer, a former senior prosecutor, will win power in a general election expected next year.
But Uxbridge is a test case for that theory, and tensions are high. “You can see the national polls, just like I can see, but these are real votes,” Steve Reed, the party’s shadow justice secretary tasked with running the local campaign, told CNN on a hot afternoon on the high street. He predicts a “tighter race” than some media have suggested.
A handful of media outlets, including CNN, were denied the chance to interview Labour’s candidate or join a canvassing session, an unusually skittish move from a party tipped to win a by-election.
And the controversial expansion of ULEZ, a world-first low-emissions zone implemented by London’s Labour mayor, from the end of August has given the Tories a lifeline among drivers.
There is little else to talk about on the campaign trail. Steve Tuckwell, the Conservative candidate, has omitted virtually any mention of his party from his posters, instead calling himself “The anti-ULEZ” choice – a reference to the plan to extend the zone in which high-emissions vehicles would be charged to drive.
“There’s some difficulties that we need to overcome,” Tuckwell, who has served as a councilor in the area, admits in an interview with CNN. He declined twice to say whether he was proud of his party’s record in government, saying instead that “there are many complexities in the national picture,” including the aftermath of Covid-19 and Russia’s war in Ukraine. “Any government would struggle with that.”
‘Labour is winning by accident’
For Labour, winning power nationally may be the easy part. In a country strangled by economic crises, the party is struggling to excite voters with a vision of what change will look like.
Reed describes its pitch as “an adult-to-adult relationship, where you level with people about what’s possible and what isn’t.” Labour is insisting it will not overspend, keen to shed a reputation gained in its last stint in power. But critics have called for an infusion of cash to fix the state’s crumbling services.
“People are not stupid. People understand the challenges facing the country,” Reed says.
Some voters are more blunt. “They’re basically saying we’ll carry on business as normal,” says Mick, 61, who runs a food stall near Uxbridge station and has voted Labour his entire life. “So why are we voting?”
Mick describes Starmer, the pragmatic face of the party since 2020, as “a bit of a wet weekend.” Urfah, a mother-of-six who voted for former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, was unable to even name the current Labour leader. “We’re struggling to put food on the table, we’re not interested,” she said.
“Labour is currently winning by accident,” James Johnson, who ran internal polling in Theresa May’s Downing Street operation and founded the JL Partners polling firm, told CNN of the national picture. Johnson’s company ran the first major opinion poll ahead of the Uxbridge by-election, which found a solid but assailable eight-point lead for Labour. “There is no great love for the party,” he said.
“I’d like to think they’d like to do more for the working people,” Tracy Peabody, a dental nurse and mother of three young boys, told CNN on a high street in Ruislip Manor. “But I can’t help thinking it’s two wings from the same bird, all singing from the same song sheet,” she added of Labour and the Conservatives.
Just three-and-a-half years after one of the party’s worst-ever electoral defeats, the outcome of Thursday’s vote in Uxbridge will indicate how far Labour has come.