As the results of England’s local elections continue to pile in, it’s clear that Rishi Sunak’s gloomy warnings to his party were well and truly founded.
The Tories are facing a “calamity”, says election guru Sir John Curtice, while a jubilant Sir Keir Starmer insists that their loss of 26 councils demonstrates that his party is “on course” for a general election victory.
Labour made big inroads in the Leave-voting areas it targeted, taking control of Plymouth, Medway and Stoke-on-Trent, and winning the Middlesbrough mayoralty on a swing of 20 per cent.
Gaining Medway for the first time – a council that Labour couldn’t even win under Tony Blair in 1997 – is a big coup for the party. “You didn’t just get it over the line, you blew the doors off,” declared Starmer to a crowd of local activists as he visited the Kent council today to celebrate the victory.
Meanwhile, the Lib Dems have, in the words of their buoyed up leader Ed Davey, “delivered a hammer blow to the Conservative Party in the blue wall.” Davey said he had a “cheshire-cat” grin on his face following news that his party had taken control of two big target councils: Windsor and Maidenhead, the seat of the former prime minister, Theresa May.
The Greens have won their first ever council in Mid-Suffolk and are set to become the largest party on East Hertfordshire Council, gaining 16 new seats, while the Conservatives, who have run the council since 1995, lost 25.
The results are unmistakably dire for Sunak. But is the swing from Conservative to Labour substantial enough to convince us that Starmer is heading for Downing Street?
“The jury is still out”, says Curtice, who points out that the degree of success Labour is experiencing today doesn’t quite match up to that seen ahead of Sir Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide. While these results are good for Labour, they do not translate into a majority at the next election.
To add to Starmer’s challenge, after Labour’s terrible performance in the 2019 general election, the swing now required for a Labour victory is even greater than that achieved by the party in 1997.
Several results hinted at the work Labour still needs to do. In Hartlepool, Labour managed to gain five seats – one off regaining control – but fell short of recouping the nine seats it lost in 2019. There are also parts of the red wall, most notably in Dudley and Sandwell, where the Tories are performing better than expected.
That said, Labour would have a nine-point lead over Conservatives based on today’s results if the whole of Britain voted, according to the BBC projection. That’s only one point off the ten-point lead which many pollsters said yesterday would be enough to offer a convincing sign that Starmer is on track to gain an overall majority at the next general election.
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Either way, the swing is certainly enough to prompt some hard reflection and finger-pointing from Tory MPs.
Kelly Tolhurst, MP for Rochester and Strood, blamed “unrealistic housing targets” for Tory losses in Medway while other MPs jumped at the opportunity to pin the blame on Britain’s highest tax burden in 70 years and demand immediate tax cuts.
Among those demanding a change of tack on tax was John Redwood, MP for Wokingham and veteran Thatcherite. His message to Sunak was a scathing one: “If the PM wants to win back lost Conservative voters he should try offering some Conservative policies.” Ouch.
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