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What the local elections mean for Westminster

If Andy Street and Ben Houchen can hold on, Rishi Sunak will claim that defeat is not inevitable.

By Freddie Hayward

Every part of England and Wales has an election today: 2,600 seats are being contested across 107 council areas. Nine regional mayors face the ballot. The East Midlands, the North East, and York and North Yorkshire will all elect mayors for the first time – a landmark moment for devolution. Then there are 25 London Assembly members (I’m told the Lib Dems are optimistic they’ll land their first ever constituency Assembly member in the South West area); and 37 police and crime commissioners.

Watch out for whether Labour takes Hartlepool and Harlow councils. Both are totemic areas and key targets for Keir Starmer’s team. Keep an eye on the North East mayoral contest and its independent candidate Jamie Driscoll, the former Labour mayor for North of Tyne and darling of the left who was barred by the party from standing in the newly configured North East mayoralty. His result will shape the Labour left’s long-term strategy. If you’re awake, note whether the Lib Dems progress in Wokingham and Tunbridge Wells.

The mayors Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram in Manchester and Liverpool, respectively, should sail to victory. The less certain battles are in the West Midlands and the new East Midlands mayoralties. Andy Street, incumbent in the former, has become a well-known Tory who is, like Burnham, disdainful of the politicking and short-termism that defines Westminster. Mayors provide areas with a figurehead who lends gravitas to these elections, partly because the media, and voters, think in terms of personalities.

Which is one reason why if Street, and the Conservative Ben Houchen in Tees Valley, can hold on to their regions, Sunak will claim that defeat at the general election is not certain, that a fightback remains possible. Because even though these elections are really about town halls, bin collections, planning departments and tram lines, they will be viewed through the Westminster lens. A battle over the narrative will erupt tomorrow night; press officers will brief to make the narrative as favourable to their party as possible; No 10 will brace for a parliamentary revolt; the publication of the Projected National Share – which extrapolates the results on to a national scale – will instantly become a proxy for whether Keir Starmer is really heading for Downing Street.

But why is the “narrative” important to those who don’t see politics as pure theatre? Because it will shape the media coverage the parties will receive, which voters will absorb, and dictate the risk of internal revolt. In Labour, the chances of this are negligible. In the Conservatives, the local elections have been talked up as a springboard for a party coup for months. Depending on the results, some Tories could push the line that MPs face annihilation unless a fourth leader since 2019 is installed. Such rebellions have failed to materialise so far. But let’s see how bad it gets. Sunak will be praying that Street’s election strategy to distance himself as far as possible from the Prime Minister pays off.

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[See more: Revealed: the £80bn hole in council finances]

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