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17 April 2023

The Tories begin expectation management for the local elections in style

By predicting losses of 1,000 seats, Greg Hands has signalled just how much trouble his party believes it is in.

By Rachel Wearmouth

The Conservative Party chair, Greg Hands, has leaned in to a startling forecast about the Tories’ chances at next month’s local elections. “The independent expectations are that the Conservatives will lose more than 1,000 seats,” he told Sky News on 16 April.

It’s not what you’d call a rousing battle cry. The prediction was never intended to get activists at CCHQ firing on all cylinders, though. In reality, it was the opening salvo in this election’s onslaught of expectation management. Hands was making his pitch to core Tory voters not to stay at home, however angry they might be about strikes or their mortgage rates. He was also aiming to soften the media framing when votes are counted and Rishi Sunak has inevitably – at least based on current polling – lost a considerable chunk of council seats.

[See also: The local elections will be Rishi Sunak’s first electoral test]

The truth is that, yes, the Conservatives will be punished for their chaotic record of late, but the party is also starting from a low base in this cycle of town-hall elections. The last time the majority of these seats were up for election, in 2019, Theresa May was prime minister and the Tories lost 1,333 councillors.

Compounded by Brexit deadlock and Tory infighting, the results effectively ended her premiership.

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The 1,000-seat figure came from John Curtice and is based on a predicted surge in tactical voting. Even without this, the Tory chairman has much to feel glum about. Pat Cullen, the general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, declared on 16 April that nurses may continue strike action up until Christmas after union members rejected the government’s pay deal. Tory sources believe strikes are a drag on Sunak’s poll ratings, as they amplify the mood that nothing in Britain is working and offset any positive perceptions around issues such as the Windsor framework.

A veteran Lib Dem campaigner said their party is optimistic about taking Tory seats in the Conservatives’ traditional southern heartlands. This could consolidate the Lib Dems’ other recent successes and allow the party to finally jettison its reputation as the Tories’ coalition partner (an attack, it’s worth noting, that Labour no longer uses).

Meanwhile, leading Labour figures are not yet venturing to predict where they think their party will land on 4 May. Few are predicting a repeat of Tony Blair’s record 1995 local elections, when Labour took 48 per cent of the vote – but they are quietly confident of victories. A poll by Opinium released yesterday had Labour support on 42 per cent and the Tories on just 28 per cent. But when it comes to the next general election, both main parties are focusing on the relatively high proportion voters who don’t know how they will cast their ballot.

The locals may be the last electoral test before voters decide the next government, and so the narrative that follows the results matters. Given this, Hands has acknowledged that his party is in a desperate starting position.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe here.

[See also: Why Keir Starmer is still struggling to cut through]

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