British Conservatives suffer major setbacks in early local election results

Britain's Conservative Party suffered major setbacks on Friday in local elections that are seen as a barometer for how the party will perform in the next general election and a key test for embattled Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

Only a small part of the results had been announced by midday on Friday, but the signs were already ominous for Sunak's Conservatives. The party has lost around 150 seats so far, including six in Hartlepool, north-east England, where it made inroads after Brexit but more recently lost ground to the resurgent Labor Party.

The Conservatives have won a notable victory in a closely watched race for mayor of Tees Valley, also in the north-east of England, where the Conservative incumbent, Ben Houchen, held on, winning a narrow majority.

Elsewhere, however, the picture has been uniformly bleak for Sunak, under whose leadership the Conservatives have trailed the opposition Labor Party by double figures in national polls for 18 months.

In Blackpool South, a northern coastal district, Labor won a special election for a parliamentary seat in a huge swing of votes away from the Conservatives, who had retained the seat but narrowly missed out on third place, behind Reform UK , a small right-wing party. . The previous Conservative MP, Scott Benton, resigned in March after becoming embroiled in a lobbying scandal.

The Labor leader, Keir Starmer, described the result there as a “seismic victory” and the most important result of the day, although many other races have yet to be declared.

“This is the only contest where voters have had the chance to send a message directly to Rishi Sunak's Conservatives,” Starmer said, “and that message is an overwhelming vote for change.”

Voters went to the polls on Thursday in 107 towns and cities across England to elect members of local councils and 11 mayors, including those in London, the West Midlands and the Tees Valley in northeast England. Further results will be announced throughout Friday and the weekend.

With Sunak's party badly divided and time running out before he must call a general election by next January, the results have come under scrutiny. While analysts had expected the Conservatives to lose a significant number of seats, a worse-than-expected result could galvanize Sunak's critics within the party into a bid to topple him and install another leader.

The prime minister's allies hope that some big victories – notably in two regional mayoral races – will reassure Conservative lawmakers, stabilize his shaky leadership and end speculation about whether he will lead the party into a general election, due in the autumn .

Houchen's victory in the first of these, at Tees Valley, eased some of the pressure on Sunak. But even that glimmer of good news was double-edged because Houchen campaigned primarily on his brand, rather than his party affiliation, and his majority dropped from nearly 73% of the vote in 2021 to about 53 %.

The result of the other major mayoral contest, in the West Midlands, is not expected until Saturday and the local Conservative candidate, Andy Street, also distanced himself from the party during the campaign.

Even if the Conservatives win both races, they still stand to lose at least 400 council seats out of the 985 they are defending. Many of these elections take place in towns and cities traditionally dominated by the Labor Party, but which have switched to the Conservatives in the years following the 2016 Brexit referendum.

To make matters even more difficult, the last time many of these races were fought, in 2021, Sunak's Conservatives were enjoying a period of popularity thanks to the massive rollout of a coronavirus vaccine by one of his predecessors, Boris Johnson. That means conservatives may have a long way to go to fall back.

As well as Hartlepool, the Labor Party gained control of Redditch, Thurrock and Rushmoor councils in Hampshire, although it suffered a setback in Oldham, where it remains the largest party, but lost overall control of the council after some seats fell to independents. .

This result reflects dissent over Labour's position on the war between Israel and Hamas, particularly among Muslim voters, many of whom believe party leaders should be more vocal in criticizing Israel's military action in Gaza.

“The idea that the Labor Party is experiencing some localized difficulties relating to its position on Gaza appears to be gaining traction,” Chris Hopkins, director of political research at Savanta, a polling and market research firm, wrote in a comment.

For Starmer, the election is an opportunity to demonstrate that he has a credible chance of becoming Britain's next prime minister, as current polls suggest. Despite his party's strong numbers, few voters seem enthusiastic about Starmer, who is considered a competent but not particularly charismatic politician.

London voters will have to wait until Saturday to find out whether their mayor, Sadiq Khan, has won a third term, the first for a London mayor since the office was created in 2000. A defeat of Khan by his Conservative opponent, Susan Hall, would be a big surprise, given that the British capital leans to the left politically, but assuming she wins, the margin of victory will be monitored for signs of waning popularity.

The main challenge, however, lies with the conservatives. A heavy loss of seats could demoralize the party faithful and panic Conservative MPs, who fear they will be expelled from Parliament in the general election.

Since they were last elected in a landslide in 2019, the Conservatives have already ousted two leaders, Johnson and Liz Truss. Dropping a third would be risky, as there is no obvious replacement guaranteed to be more successful than Sunak, who was Chancellor of the Exchequer under Johnson.

Johnson was reminded of his disorganized leadership style on Thursday when he showed up at a polling station without the necessary photo identification – a requirement introduced by his own government in 2022 – and was turned away (he returned later with the ID correct). .

For Sunak, the polls are now so dire that some see a new leader as the only possible way to fend off a crushing general election defeat. In January, a former government minister, Simon Clarke, called on the prime minister to resign, but this failed to foment a larger rebellion.

For those who think such a risk is worth taking, the post-local election period could be their last chance to act against Sunak before he puts his party on alert for a general election.

The Conservatives' dismal results in the 2022 local elections were the prelude to Johnson's ouster, though not the trigger: he was finally purged two months later after mishandling an unrelated scandal.

Sunak's supporters say he could benefit from a drop in inflation, the prospect of an economic recovery and the implementation of his plan to put asylum seekers on one-way flights to Rwanda, a policy popular among the Conservatives and many others. help fend off the threat from the anti-immigration Reform UK party.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *