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Labour’s gains spell apocalypse for the Tories

The local election results suggest the Tories are heading for one of their worst defeats in history.

By George Eaton

Three years is a very long time in politics. Back in 2021, as the Conservatives triumphed against Labour in the Hartlepool by-election, Boris Johnson was eyeing a decade in power. Keir Starmer, having failed to revive his party’s electoral fortunes, was contemplating resignation. 

Today, the party’s positions have been diametrically reversed. The Tories have lost Hartlepool council to Labour (which won nine of the 12 seats contested) and it is Starmer who can eye a decade in power.

The local election results so far confirm the conclusion that the national polls have long supported: Labour is on course for government; the Tories for opposition. In the Blackpool South by-election – a contest which Labour talked up as the most important – Starmer’s party achieved a swing of 26.3 per cent from the Conservatives. This is not only far in excess of the 12.5 per cent swing that Labour needs for a general election victory, it is the third-largest swing in history.

The only consolation for the Tories in Blackpool was that Reform UK fell 17 votes short of beating them into second place. Once again, Nigel Farage’s franchise has failed to justify the hype. The same cannot be said of Labour

In advance of polling day, the Tories sought to manage expectations by suggesting that they would lose around half of the 989 seats they were defending. But as the psephologist John Curtice has observed, the results so far support this deliberately grim projection. “We’re looking at certainly one of the worst, if not the worst, Conservative performance in local government elections for 40 years,” he said. 

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With only 34 of 107 councils declared, the Tories have lost 92 seats, while Labour has gained 58. As well as Hartlepool, Starmer’s party has taken control of Redditch, Thurrock and Rushmoor – the latter is the home of the British Army and had been Tory-controlled for 24 years. (Labour did, however, fail to gain the bellwether that is Harlow by one seat.)

The Tories, as they have all along, will hope that they can shift this early narrative: if they hold the Tees Valley and West Midlands mayoralties, Rishi Sunak will insist that defeat is not inevitable. But these contests, which Ben Houchen and Andy Street fought as quasi-independents, should be viewed with due perspective. Large swings towards Labour in both would still signal a coming Conservative defeat. 

Sunak and his ministers cannot dismiss their losses as “mid-term blues”. That term, beloved of struggling leaders through the ages, denotes an electorate that is prepared to forgive the government. There is no sign that British voters are so minded: come the general election, they fully intend to punish the Conservatives. And the Tories lack anything resembling an escape plan.

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