A bitter reckoning for Rishi Sunak: what’s at stake in the May 2 local elections?

Recent days have borne witness to a subtle shift in Rishi Sunak’s politics. A punchy performance at prime minister’s questions last week preceded a declaration of war against “sick note culture”; on Monday, the PM stood firm ahead of further Rwanda Bill ping-pong — forcing MPs and peers to work late into the night to secure victory; and now we have an announcement on defence spending designed, at least in part, to set a spending trap for Labour. 

Sunak’s gear change can reasonably be viewed as an acknowledgement that his strategy in 2024 has failed to shift the dial for the Conservative Party. It’s the latest variation on a familiar theme: the PM has already displayed a penchant for political resets (see recent reshuffles and his speech to Conservative conference last year). 

But Sunak’s policy blitz is also clearly designed to make some last-minute advances ahead of the upcoming May 2 local elections — the last major test of public opinion before the general election later this year. Elections are taking place in 107 local authorities in England next week, with more than 2,600 council seats and a further 10 mayoralties up for grabs.

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The prevalent political trends in 2024 would suggest that the loss of Conservative councillors en masse is inevitable. To take a longer view, in 1979, 1997 and 2010 — the previous three transitions of power at Westminster — the party approaching power made significant gains at the lead-in local elections. Rishi Sunak simply, will want to deny Keir Starmer such a symbolic victory. 

But worryingly for the PM, a good proportion of races this year were last fought in 2021 as Boris Johnson, the then-prime minister, enjoyed a vaccine-infused, post-Brexit political honeymoon. At the time, Savanta polling placed the Conservatives on 42 per cent and Labour on 34 per cent; two prime ministers later and Savanta’s data displays the depths the Conservatives have since plunged. Today, Sunak’s party polls at 25 per cent, with Labour on 43 per cent.

And so the question vexing Westminster right now is not how well Sunak might do — but how low can the Conservatives go? Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher, both local election gurus, wrote for the Local Government Chronicle last month that Sunak’s party could lose 500 seats if it repeats its poor 2023 local election performance, when its national vote share fell below 30 per cent. 

There’s a problem with this prediction, though; because compared to today, the 2023 local elections were fought during what could be described as a high-water mark of success for the prime minister. Circa April/May 2023, “peak Sunak” was characterised by the fall of Nicola Sturgeon; the negotiation of the Windsor Framework and improved UK-EU relations; Britain’s entry into the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP); a gaffe-free spring budget; and the introduction of a brand new asylum bill, what would soon become the Illegal Migration Act. Relative to today, certainly, Sunak seemed to be riding high. 

However, despite this backdrop, the Conservative Party outshot its own dire expectation management in the 2023 locals — surpassing then-chairman Greg Hands’ predicted 1000 councillor losses. Telling perhaps, there has been no official expectation management operation this time around — lest CCHQ give electors a forecast to surpass. 

The local elections: How will Andy Street and Ben Houchen fare?

In lieu of any Tory expectation management campaign, Westminster discourse has focussed mainly on the prospects of two high-profile Tory incumbents: mayors Andy Street (West Midlands) and Ben Houchen (Tees Valley).

In their respective campaigns, though — in what amounts to another sign of the times for Rishi Sunak — both Street and Houchen have tried to distance themselves from their party. Street, for instance, recently urged voters to “distinguish between party and me” in an interview with the Observer. His campaign material boasts a green and purple colour palette — with no sign of any Tory blue, let alone any references to the national government his party leads.  

Similarly, in a social media post earlier this month, Houchen declared: “I’m not dictated, whipped or told what to do by any party” (he takes the Conservative whip in the House of Lords) and insisted the upcoming mayoral election “isn’t about national politics or the nonsense that happens in Westminster”.

Of the two incumbents, it is Houchen in Tees Valley who seems most likely to defy the Conservatives’ national poll ratings. His landslide re-election victory in 2021, having taken an extraordinary 72.8 per cent of the vote, led allies to extol a “North Korean level” result. Nonetheless, a recent Redfield and Wilton Strategies poll suggested Houchen — who has acted as the unofficial poster boy for levelling up since 2021 — is tied with Labour’s Chris McEwan on 47 per cent each.

In the West Midlands race, Redfield and Wilton Strategies has put Labour’s candidate, Richard Parker, on 42 per cent — 14 points ahead of Street on 28. Savanta data suggests the race will be tighter, but still places Street three points behind Parker.

The local elections: Labour’s chances 

As far as Labour is concerned, a clean sweep of the 10 mayoralties remains an outside possibility. But what seems beyond doubt is that the party can count on its five incumbent metro mayors to secure re-election: Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester, Steve Rotheram in Liverpool City Region, Tracy Brabin in West Yorkshire, Oliver Coppard in South Yorkshire and Sadiq Khan in Greater London can likely all look forward to another term in office. 

In this regard, a more interesting contest is the race for the North East mayoralty, where Labour’s Kim McGuinness, the current Northumbria PCC, is facing a challenge from independent candidate Jamie Driscoll, the current mayor of North of Tyne whose post is being absorbed into the larger North East role. Driscoll was controversially barred from the Labour long-list for the newly-formed post by the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) in June 2023, prompting allegations of a factional stitch-up.

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That said, one area Labour is essentially guaranteed to gain is the parliamentary seat of Blackpool South, which is holding a by-election after ex-MP Scott Benton’s recent resignation. Benton, who faced a recall petition after becoming embroiled in a lobbying scandal, won a 3,690 majority in this totemic “Red Wall” constituency at the 2019 election. It means on May 3, Starmer should be able to point to more progress in erstwhile Labour heartlands — areas once wooed by Boris Johnson. 

The local elections: Rishi Sunak’s best-case scenario

All this begs the question: what is the prime minister’s best-case scenario for the upcoming local elections? What, as a general election nears, could galvanise Conservative strategists holed up in campaign HQ?

Well, Sunak would ideally like to retain at least one of the incumbent Conservative mayors, perhaps Houchen, and even potentially welcome another: Ben Bradley, a serving MP and leader of Nottinghamshire County Council, faces former Labour minister Claire Ward in the race for the West Midlands mayoralty, for instance. Although it is York and North Yorkshire — which includes the PM’s constituency — that looks the most likely to elect a new Conservative mayor. 

The prime minister will also be hoping for a good night for Driscoll in the North East. Sunak could seize on a strong performance here, if not an outright victory, to suggest Labour is remains exposed electorally. Ostensibly, such an outcome would buttress the well-rehearsed Conservative theory that enthusiasm for Keir Starmer doesn’t run deep. 

The PM will also be buoyed by the fact that Reform UK, the restyled Brexit Party, is only standing candidates in one in seven council seats. This will limit Conservative losses and present a better picture for the party when the national equivalent vote share is calculated. 

The local elections: what’s at stake for Rishi Sunak?

That said, it is worth stressing that Rishi Sunak’s premiership has not developed according to best-case scenarios — the opposite in fact. 

The impact the Conservative Party’s rolling electoral losses (typically by way of by-election routings) have had on the political landscape cannot be overstated — both in terms of shaping rebel MP behaviour and the tone and tenor of political commentary. The local elections, which look likely to cement Sunak’s reputation as a loser, could see matters come firmly to a head on both counts.

Indeed, even if one of Street or Houchen defies the national polling picture, would the PM welcome such an illustration of how a Conservative can win in the current landscape? That is, by distancing oneself from Sunak. Moreover, Houchen — who seems most likely to secure re-election — is sometimes considered to be an ally of Boris Johnson, having been ennobled by the ex-prime minister as part of his resignation honours list. 

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In short, an especially poor night would prompt two possible responses: (1), more and more Conservatives reconcile with their likely fate, coming to terms with the party’s malaise; and/or, (2), anti-Sunak rebel defeatism inspires a fit of political activity, putting any previous “grid of s***s” to shame. 

Almost certainly, a poor return for the Conservatives at the local elections will conjure renewed rumours of MPs angling for a vote of no-confidence. In this instance, even if the PM avoids such an eventuality — or, as would be likely, wins the intra-party scuffle — the Conservative Party would be left more divided and doomed than ever. 

Duly, one option being discussed by Tory MPs — and reportedly even deputy prime minister Oliver Dowden — is that Sunak should avoid any such local elections fallout by calling a summer general election, thus stemming further psychodrama-inspired losses. 

This, naturally, is an imperfect response for myriad reasons — and should be considered only as an absolute worst-case scenario fix. But a broader point here is that the prime minister will have little to no good options on the morning after polling day: simply, it’s difficult to envisage a scenario in which the PM emerges unscathed from these elections.

One possible crumb of comfort for Sunak is that this will likely be his last run-in with voters before the general election later this year. That is, unless, the Conservative sleaze machine churns out another by-election — which, after the recent Menzies scandal, is a possibility no fair-minded commentator can reasonably rule out. 

Lo, the Conservative doomsday clock edges closer to midnight still.

Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on X/Twitter here.

Politics.co.uk is the UK’s leading digital-only political website, providing comprehensive coverage of UK politics. Subscribe to our daily newsletter here.