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Will Rishi Sunak survive the local elections?

The prospect of sweeping Tory losses means this is a moment of real danger for the Prime Minister.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Cast your mind back to 6 May 2021. The UK was still slowly creeping out of lockdown, with socialising indoors in most settings still banned. The Covid vaccine roll-out was under way, with around half the population having received their first jab. And Boris Johnson was enjoying a bounce in the polls as Keir Starmer struggled to cement his authority (in a critical essay for the New Statesman, Tony Blair warned that Labour was “asking whether Keir is the right leader”).

It feels like a different era – one that, perhaps, many of us have tried to forget. But that was the context in which the suite of local council seats up for grabs this Thursday (2 May) was last fought. Which should give you some idea of how the Tories are feeling as we head towards the last major polling event before the general election.

“In May 2021, the Conservatives were 8 to 10 points ahead of Labour,” Joe Twyman, the founder of Deltapoll, told me. “Since then, their vote has essentially halved.”

So how bad might it be for the Tories? Last time, the Conservatives won 2,345 councillors (a net gain of 234) and Labour won 1,345 (a net loss of 326). In terms of pure numbers, mapping potential council losses against headline party support, the Conservatives are set to lose between 400 and 600 seats.

Some of those seats, of course, matter more than others.

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“I would suggest that the following Conservative-held councils are worth keeping a particular eye on: Dudley, Basildon, Harlow, Nuneaton & Bedworth and Dorset,” Twyman said. 

“These are all fully up for grabs this year and could all conceivably be lost by the Conservatives – with the Lib Dems taking Dorset and Labour taking the rest. Were that to happen, it would indicate that both Labour and Lib Dems are winning in precisely the kind of areas where they need to pick up seats at the next election.”  In other words, both the traditional “Blue Wall” Tory heartlands and the “Red Wall” areas won over by Johnson in 2019 are at risk.

Councils are unlikely to be the biggest news story of these elections. The headline focus will be on the ten metro mayors. Of these, four races in particular stand out as critical to Sunak’s future: London (Labour incumbent, Sadiq Khan); Tees Valley (Conservative, Ben Houchen); West Midlands (Conservative, Andy Street); and East Midlands (new mayoralty).

London, last fought in May 2021, does not resemble a tight race. Khan, who is running for a third term, has a 13- to 19-point lead over his Conservative rival Susan Hall. Given Labour’s overwhelming support in the capital, this should be an easy win. But as my colleague George Eaton outlined last month, Labour strategists are getting jittery. They fear a “perfect storm” – the change from a preferential voting system to first-past-the-post, new voter ID rules and voter complacency – could deny him victory. 

As well it might – had the Tories selected a stronger contender. But Hall, who was only selected after the favourite Daniel Korski dropped out over allegations of sexual harassment, does not appear to be making the most of her advantages. Inexperienced and gaffe-prone (she has struggled with basic questions around bus fares and crime when interviewed), she has failed to make much of an impact. Her campaign is mostly based on opposition to the anti-pollution Ulez restrictions and hyperbolic warnings (some might say “misinformation”) that Khan intends to introduce road pricing. She didn’t even release a manifesto until ten days before polling day.

It is increasingly common to hear Tories vent about the electoral opportunity they missed. “There’s no enthusiasm for Khan and Labour,” one frustrated MP on the outskirts of London told me. “We could have won with a decent candidate.” But the hope is that the race will narrow (as it did in 2021) and Khan’s authority will be dented. An election leaflet sent out by Hall’s campaign acknowledges that the Labour mayor is almost certain to win and urges Londoners to vote for “someone else” so that he “wins by a smaller margin than he is expecting”. Which says it all, really.

Tees Valley and the West Midlands are another story. Both Houchen and Street were first elected in 2017, both won comfortably (sensationally, in Houchen’s case) in 2021 and both have strong personal brands. Their victories, particularly Houchen’s 72.8 per cent vote share, have been taken as evidence of the political realignment that has seen the Tories achieve success across previously unexpected parts of the country.

What does it say about the Tory brand, then, that both seem to be in trouble?

As the New Statesman’s polling expert Ben Walker explained recently, Street seems to be suffering from the general toxicity surrounding the Conservatives. A Redfield & Wilton poll puts him 14 points below Labour challenger Richard Parker. Street remains more popular than his party with the voters of the West Midlands, but not by enough to close the gap. Houchen is facing a similar trend, albeit with slightly more positive numbers: Redfield & Wilton has him tied with Labour’s Chris McEwan. While he might still win (Tory insiders seem surprisingly confident on that front, despite the row over alleged corruption in the Teesworks development), it will likely be with a vastly reduced majority.

This does not paint a particularly pretty picture for Tory MPs.

“A failure to hold either or both of West Midlands and Tees Valley would be incredibly serious – both Andy Street and Ben Houchen have really strong personal brands which all polling tells us are way ahead of the Conservative Party’s,” another Tory MP told me. “If they cannot survive, what does that imply for MPs?”

The new East Midlands mayoralty is also worth watching for the same reason. Ben Bradley, who is already both the MP for Mansfield and the leader of Nottinghamshire County Council, is the Conservative candidate there.

“If he can’t win in two counties where we won the overwhelming majority of parliamentary seats five years ago, that should be a massive red flag,” the MP said.

Then, of course, there’s the by-election. Scott Benton, ousted from parliament after an investigation found he had offered to lobby ministers on behalf of the gambling industry in exchange for cash, has left a vacancy in Blackpool South. Benton won by just 3,690 votes in 2019, the first time the seat had been held by a Conservative since 1997. This should be a straightforward Labour win – indeed, the Tories seem to have basically written it off.

We’ve come a long way from the by-election of 6 May 2021, when Labour unexpectedly lost Hartlepool and Starmer was thrown into crisis. But Blackpool South is an interesting one to watch owing to Reform (previously the Brexit Party). It’s exactly the kind of seat that the party, founded by Nigel Farage and now led by Richard Tice, should do well in: over two-thirds of voters backed Leave in 2016, and Ukip came third in the 2015 general election.

The insurgent party’s performance here will show how worried the Conservatives should be about Reform siphoning off votes from the right in the next general election. While pollsters tend to believe Reform’s support is overstated in voting intention surveys, this is still a big test of just how much trouble Farage could cause the Tories in key battleground seats.

Overall, how worried should Sunak be when he wakes up on Friday morning?

“Wins for Houchen and Street, coupled with fewer than 400 council losses and Susan Hall getting within single digits of Sadiq Khan in London would constitute a good set of results for the Conservatives,” Twyman said. “On the flip side, losing in Tees Valley and the West Midlands, plus more than 600 council losses would be bad news. Some way in the middle, around 500 council losses, coupled with a victory in one of those two mayoral contests is broadly in line with current expectations – though that still demonstrates the scale of the difficulty Rishi Sunak and his team face ahead of the general election.”

That “some way in the middle” scenario, as Twyman very calmly put it, would still be a damning indictment of the Tories. And while Sunak will try to present a win in either the West Midlands or Tees Valley as evidence things aren’t as bad as they seem, even that might not be enough to keep his party from revolt.

“Ironically it’s the councils where the action really lies and which are the best proxy for how MPs are going to fare,” one MP told me. “MPs largely can’t distance themselves from the party’s message and leadership in the way that mayors can, and so what happens to councillors is considerably more likely to resemble the outcome for MPs.” They pointed out too that Reform is only standing candidates in about a sixth of local councils, meaning the degree to which the Tories are squeezed will be under-represented. “The big thing to note is whatever the results, they are likely to flatter how the Conservatives will perform in a general election.”

That could spark panic among MPs – and spell trouble for Sunak. While the momentum has gone out of the effort to replace him in recent weeks – with political wins such as the passage of the Rwanda bill, the promised rise in defence spending and positive inflation figures calming a fractious party – a bad night on Thursday will invigorate the PM’s fiercest critics. And MPs who have so far given Sunak the benefit of the doubt will be looking at the collapse in Conservative support, alongside the potential loss of at least one of the metro mayors whose success was meant to herald a new era of Tory dominance, and start to make calculations about their own prospects.

“I think if it goes badly, the move against Sunak will be very fast,” one Tory adviser warned. “I’d give it a matter of weeks before there’s a vote of no confidence.” (Letters from 52 MPs are required to trigger one.) This, they argued, would raise the probability of a summer general election. “Either Sunak will lose [the confidence vote] and the new leader will have to go to the country as soon as possible, or he will scrape a win but be so damaged he knows he can’t limp on until autumn.” A Conservative MP agreed that this is a moment of real danger for the Prime Minister and that those seeking to oust him would no doubt try again after the local elections. But they played down the possibility of either another change of leader or an election before the autumn. When asked why, they responded witheringly: “Have you seen the polls?”

[See also: The Tories are facing a moment of great peril]

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