Conservatives suffer steep losses in English local elections

Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives suffered crushing losses in polls for English councils, but experts said Labour had fallen short of a result that would translate to a clear parliamentary majority at the next general election.

Following a tumultuous year, the Tories were on the ropes across the country after losing 936 council seats by Friday evening, sparking Conservative recriminations over Sunak’s strategy and the party’s lacklustre campaign.

The May 4 polls — whose results came out during Friday — were one of the biggest electoral tests before the general election expected next year, and had long been looked to as an indicator of the two main parties’ prospects.

Labour said it had made gains in the kinds of seats it needed to win back power at Westminster. “Make no mistake, this means that we are on course for a Labour majority at the next election — a very, very good set of results for us,” said Sir Keir Starmer, the party leader.

Despite the jubilation inside Labour, Starmer still has work to do to be confident of an outright majority at the next general election, with a hung parliament looking a real possibility.

The BBC’s projected national vote share analysis put Labour on 35 per cent against the Tories on 26 per cent — the best Labour local election performance since 1997 — with the Lib Dems on 20 per cent.

Sir John Curtice, a respected elections expert, said that if replicated at a general election the lead of nine percentage points could be “perhaps just enough” for an outright Labour majority at Westminster.

But he pointed out that Labour’s share of the vote was no higher than last year and that its lead reflected a slump in the Tory figure.

“Labour will be disappointed that it looks as though their vote is simply on a par with their performance in last year’s local elections, although the Conservatives are still five points down on 12 months ago,” said Curtice.

Michael Thrasher, of the Nuffield Politics Research Centre, said Labour was “falling short” of a general election-winning performance. “Even where it has done well, like Plymouth, the increase in vote share, though large, is not large enough for an overall majority at the next general election,” he added.

However if there is widespread anti-Tory tactical voting at the next election, Sunak could be in serious trouble, given that Labour and the Lib Dems combined secured a national vote share of 55 per cent, compared with the Conservatives’ 26 per cent.

Sunak said voters had made it clear that they wanted him to focus on their priorities — the economy, the NHS and immigration — and insisted the Tories had made progress in areas such as Peterborough.

But the results sparked recrimination within Conservative ranks. “It’s a gloomy, gloomy, gloomy mood,” said one Tory official. “[Conservative Campaign Headquarters] did not run anywhere near a competent campaign, to be frank.”

In southern England, Labour took control of Medway council in Kent from the Tories for the first time since its creation in 1998. It also seized Plymouth in Devon, Dover in Kent and Swindon in Wiltshire.

In the former “red wall” of the North and the Midlands — areas that fell to Boris Johnson’s Tories at the 2019 election — Labour captured Stoke-on-Trent, Erewash and Blackpool, while winning the Middlesbrough mayoralty.

By 9.50pm, the Conservatives had lost control of 48 councils, including Brentwood in Essex, Tamworth in Staffordshire, Hertsmere in Hertfordshire, East Lindsey in Lincolnshire and North West Leicestershire.

Labour had seized 22 councils and the Lib Dems 12, with 16 shifting to no overall control.

Labour had gained 617 seats compared with its position immediately before the local elections, while the Lib Dems had gained 405 and the Conservatives had lost 936.

Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey said the results had given him a “Cheshire cat” smile. His party made progress in wealthy traditionally Tory areas, taking Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire and Windsor and Maidenhead in Berkshire — an area represented by former prime minister Theresa May.

Since the last set of local elections, the Tories have had three prime ministers — Johnson, Liz Truss and Sunak — and have presided over a period of political and economic chaos.

Data and graphics by Oliver Hawkins, Ella Hollowood and Martin Stabe

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