Picture by Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street

What the local elections reveal about the Conservative Party’s fate

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With less than half of the 107 councils holding elections having declared results, the overall picture as of 1.30 pm on Friday remains incomplete. But from the patchwork of local election results ready to be analysed, one conclusion features above all others: the Conservatives have suffered very serious losses indeed.

On the council level, the party has lost over half of the seats it was defending. If this rate of loss continues across all councils, the Conservatives are on track to match their worst performance in a set of local elections back in 1995 (based on the proportion of seats lost, that is). Of course, we all know what followed two years later at the general election.

The problem for Rishi Sunak is that he, unlike John Major 29 years ago, is running out of time before statute obliges him to trigger a national poll. In 1995, the then-PM had two years to narrow the polls and avoid a more considerable routing; the 1996 local elections even saw a small swing to the Conservatives. Sunak has now approached the point in the electoral cycle when the polls should be narrowing — and they are not. The Conservative Party is not suffering “Midterm blues”: try pre-election devastation.

To be sure, some of the losses overnight and this morning were inevitable. A good proportion of races yesterday 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.

But this caveat will prove little comfort when Conservative figures consider the scale of the losses. Speaking to Sky News this morning, local elections guru Professor Michael Thrasher declared that while the overall picture remains “complicated”, the Conservative performance amounts to a “collapse”. Meanwhile, Sir John Curtice, an equally sober psephologist, proffered this grim projection: “We’re looking at certainly one of the worst, if not the worst, Conservative performance in local government elections for the last 40 years”.

At the time of writing, Labour has gained overall control of five councils — including Redditch in the West Midlands and Rushmoor in Hampshire. It is the first time Labour has controlled Rushmoor in the council’s 50-year history; even Tony Blair failed to ever win here.

Away from the council contests, the Conservative Party lost the Blackpool South by-election with a 26.3 per cent swing to Labour. It is the party’s seventh by-election loss direct to Labour since 2021. Strikingly, Reform recorded its highest-ever by-election vote share of 16.9 per cent in Blackpool — surpassing the party’s previous high watermark of 13 per cent recorded earlier this year in Wellingborough. It is the first time Reform has definitively outshot its national poll ratings — and, worse still for No 10, the party only narrowly missed out on second place. Just 117 votes separated the Conservative and Reform candidates after the count concluded. It comes after a YouGov poll yesterday placed Reform within just three points of the Conservatives nationally. Is now not the perfect time for Nigel Farage to announce his comeback?

This, in the end — and in lieu of a more complete picture — is the big story of the local elections. The results so far confirm prevalent electoral-political trends for the Conservative Party, recorded in past opinions polls and previous elections, which suggest the voter coalition that delivered its 80-seat majority in 2019 has long melted away.

That said, there do remain a few results the Conservatives are taking heart from. The party unexpectedly held Harlow council, albeit with a greatly reduced majority of 1; Ben Houchen, it has now been confirmed, won re-election as Tees Valley mayor — (all eyes now shift to the West Midlands race, where Andy Street could still survive). There have also been some minor murmurings that the contest for London, informed by a low turnout, is tight.

In this way, the results so far suggest then that the confluence of factors needed to trigger a Conservative rebel movement against Sunak has been avoided. The party was not pipped by Reform in Blackpool South; Houchen remains mayor of Tees Valley; and Street could still hold on. But a “good night for Sunak”? Not nearly.

Meanwhile, complicating Labour’s locals elation is the news that the party has been knocked back in places with a significant proportion of Muslim voters. The loss of Oldham council is thought to be indicative of a broader negative reaction to Labour’s approach to the Israel-Gaza conflict. As things stand, the key beneficiary of this trend appears to be the Green Party — which has more than doubled its tally of seats in councils that have counted already. According to Curtice, the Greens are averaging 11 per cent in the wards they are fighting.

But there is still plenty to left to be decided as votes continue to be totted up by Britain’s fastidious count staff. Lo, the East Midlands, and Yorkshire and North Yorkshire mayoralties are expected to declare later this afternoon. Tomorrow, the rest of the mayoral races make their results known. Then — and only then — can *definitive* conclusions be drawn. Politics@Lunch will keep you posted.

Lunchtime briefing

Labour wins Blackpool South by-election as Keir Starmer hails ‘seismic’ result

Local elections: Labour campaign chief suggests Gaza stance an ‘issue’ on doorstep

Lunchtime soundbite

‘To be frank, it doesn’t matter to me who the prime minister is… I’ll work with anybody if it means getting things done for local people’

—  Ben Houchen speaks to Sky News after he was declared the victor of the Tees Valley mayoral election.

Now try this…

Rishi Sunak’s moment of maximum danger just arrived
Politico’s Sam Blewett and Esther Webber write that Conservative rebels have been waiting for heavy, real-world electoral losses to strike against the prime minister.

Our survey. Six in ten Tory members think Sunak should stay – regardless of the local election results
The latest from ConservativeHome.

Humza Yousaf’s legacy in eight graphs
Via The Spectator. (Paywall)

On this day in 2022:

Minister says local elections won’t decide Johnson’s fate

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