Rishi Sunak on the rack as ‘seismic’ local election results threaten Tory wipeout

Panicking Tory MPs are weighing up an appalling set of local election results to decide whether they need to ditch Rishi Sunak as party leader

David Maddox
Political Editor
Friday 03 May 2024 11:06 BST
Keir Starmer hails ‘incredible’ Blackpool election win

Rishi Sunak’s position as leader of the Tories and Prime Minister is in the balance as voters delivered a damning verdict on his government in the crucial local elections yesterday.

With a general election just months away, Conservative MPs are privately discussing whether to force a vote of no confidence in their leader as the dire poll predictions appear to have been born out at the ballot box this week.

With counts still ongoing across the country, the Tories are on course to lose more than 500 of the council seats they were defending with 122 confirmed losses by 8am. Labour had picked up more than 100 gains with party leader Sir Keir Starmer describing the results as “seismic”.

Polling guru Prof Sir John Curtice hailed the Blackpool result as “spectacular” and told Radio 4’s Today that they “confirm” the terrible polls for the Tories over the last year.

Rishi Sunak’s Conservative Party is suffering heavy losses at Thursday’s local elections (Henry Nicholls/PA)
Rishi Sunak’s Conservative Party is suffering heavy losses at Thursday’s local elections (Henry Nicholls/PA) (PA Wire)

Prof Curtice said of the Blackpool by election result: “This is not an isolated case that you can explain away.’

It was “dramatic evidence that the project Rishi Sunak is meant to be there to achieve, to narrow the gap on Labour … has still to provide any visible benefit.”

Meanwhile, Labour’s Chris Webb won the Blackpool South Parliamentary by election with 26 per cent swing from Tories. Their drop in support since the 2019 General Election is the third biggest fall since the Second World War.

Mr Webb said: “The people of Blackpool South have told Rishi Sunak and the Conservatives they have had enough. Prime Minister, admit you have failed and call a General Election.”

Worse still for the Tories was that they only narrowly beat Reform UK in the by-election. The results so far showed that where the Tories were facing Reform candidates their vote dropped by 17 percent on average compared to 11 percent where there was no Reform candidate.

Former Tory deputy chairman Lee Anderson now a Reform MP mocked his former colleagues saying: "Reform's vote is going up and up and up, the Tory vote is going down and down and down...Reform will win seats [in the general election]."

According to one leading party critic of Mr Sunak Dame Andrea Jenkyns, the only thing saving the Prime Minister currently is “paralysis” among Tory MPs.

She said: “I don’t think the letters are going to go in at the moment. MPs are paralysed.”

The Morley and Outwood MP instead proposed a “plan B” of bringing rightingers like Suella Braverman back into the cabinet and allowing Boris Johnson to return as a canddiate at the next election.

All eyes are on the Tees Valey Mayor election today where Tory Ben Houchen won 78.8 percent of the vote in 2021 but is struggling to hold on against his Labour rival with a result expected at lunch time.

One Conservative backbencher told The Independent: “I am going to wait and see what happens with Houchen in Teesside.”

Keir Starmer hails ‘incredible’ Blackpool election win.
Keir Starmer hails ‘incredible’ Blackpool election win. (Good Morning Britain/ITV)

Another added: “Things are just not good at all.”

One of the Tories pushing for a leadership contest told The Independent: “It really is now or never. If we don’t do anything the party will consigned to oblivion.”

A final decision may wait until early tomorrow afternoon with the West Midlands Mayor election result covering a region with almost 30 battleground constituences. Conservative mayor Andy Street also fighting for survival despite removing Conservative symbols from much of his literature.

There is though speculation that if the 52 letters needed do go to 1922 Committee chairman Sir Graham Brady to trigger a vote of confidence in Mr Sunak then he may resign.

One MP said: “I think he would know that he could not survive a confidence vote reputationally even if he wins it. I think he would probably resign.”

It did not take long for Tory recriminations over the Party’s disastrous performance to surface.

Andrew Jefferies, Tory leader of Thurrock Council in Essex which fell to Labour, blamed the Government for his defeat. He said: “People are unhappy with the Government and cannot see what the vision is for the country. The Prime Minister needs to take that and give a positive message to voters.”

Tim Montgomerie, founder of the influential Conservative Home website, said of the results: “That isn’t bad, it is catastrophic. Rishi Sunak is a nice decent man but he doesn’t do politics.”

Claire Bullivant, efounder of another Tory grassroots website The Conservative Post, claimed members want a new leader.

She said: “The country is actually calling out for conservatism. Ask any councillor or campaigner. We heard it on every doorstep. You see it on social media. You read it in every local newspaper. You hear it in every pub. Give us a new leader who is a proper conservative and we can still win the General Election. Bring back conservatism!"

Reform’s Lee Anderson mocked former Tory colleagues
Reform’s Lee Anderson mocked former Tory colleagues (Lee Anderson)

BBC political editor Chris Mason said the results were “further evidence that the Rishi Sunak project to resuscitate the Conservative brand is not working - whatever he tries appears to make no difference.”

Mason said a key question following the Conservatives dismal showing was whether Tory MPs would now consider what he called “the nuclear option” of ousting Sunak as leader.

Mason said the Tories local election losses were similar to those the Party suffered in 1995, two years before it was ‘crushed’ by Tony Blair’s Labour Party in the 1997 election.

The votes yesterday came after a Yougov poll had given the Tories an even worse vote share than when Liz Truss was Prime Minister for a disastrous 49 days.

It meant, according to a prediction website Electoral Calculus, that the party was on course for just 32 seats in the general election.

However, as votes were being counted this morning, Tory chairman Richard Holden defiantly said that Mr Sunak was “here to stay as leader” and will take the party to the next general election.

But a string of groundbreaking results suggest that Labour appear to be on the verge of taking swathes of the country.

Labour described its gain in Rushmoor as “a historic result”. Rushmoor has never had a Labour majority council and has been run by the Conservatives for the last 24 years. The council also contains Aldershot parliamentary constituency which is a key battleground for Labour at the general election and is the home of the British Army.

Labour also took back Hartlepool a key red wall battleground where Reform UK leader Richard Tice is expected to stand in the general election. In Essex Labour also won Thurrock Council.

Pat McFadden MP, Labour’s national campaign coordinator, said: “These results show that Labour is making progress in the places needed that will decide the general election.

“The Tories needed to be making gains in an election year. Instead their vote has collapsed in a key by election and they are suffering losses of council seats. Responsibility for this sits firmly with Rishi Sunak who is being punished by voters for the Tories’ failure.

“These results are sending a clear message that people across the country are demanding change, and only the Labour Party will deliver that. It’s time for a general election now.”

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