Vote in London outskirts poses test for UK PM Johnson

OLD BEXLEY AND SIDCUP, England (Reuters) - Voters went to the polls in a district on the outskirts of London on Thursday to elect a new member of parliament, in a test of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's response to accusations of sleaze and his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Johnson's Conservatives are likely to retain Old Bexley and Sidcup in the so-called by-election, made necessary by the death of its former member of parliament James Brokenshire, but with a reduced majority after weeks of government U-turns and scandals.

The result will be known in the early hours of Friday.

Johnson, elected in 2019, has struggled to shrug off allegations of sleaze since his government was forced to U-turn after trying to change parliamentary conflict-of-interest rules to protect a colleague over his "second job".

He also came under scrutiny after a rambling speech to business leaders last month, when he lost his place and lavished praise on a Peppa Pig theme park, an event that raised questions among his own lawmakers about his Downing Street operation.

Britain's main opposition Labour Party hopes to capitalise on Johnson's difficulties, but even its candidate, Daniel Francis, acknowledged it would be a "difficult challenge" winning the safe Conservative seat.

"We'll give it our all to get as close as we can and hopefully try and win it," Francis told Reuters.

"As the campaign's gone on, people are more and more talking about the popularity of the prime minister and also the sleaze that's surrounded the prime minister in recent weeks."

The by-election pits Francis against Conservative Louie French, a local councillor, in an electoral district which has voted for the Conservatives since its creation in 1983.

One Conservative lawmaker said people in the area were "grumpy" but there was no real movement towards Labour.

Shaun Tyler, a 72-year-old who has lived in Bexley for 50 years, said it was the first time he had not voted.

"I've always voted Conservative with a small 'c' but this time they've brought down the standards so low. I don't want a priest, but I want someone with decent standards in life and this Conservative Party has totally lost it," said Tyler, adding he did not see "a viable alternative".

(Writing by Elizabeth Piper; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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