Rishi Sunak on the rack as losses point to general election wipeout

Tories rocked by worst results in 40 years... but PM pins survival hopes on party’s earlier Tees Valley victory and eyes West Midlands

David Maddox
Political Editor
,Zoe Grunewald
Saturday 04 May 2024 09:15 BST
Labour candidate celebrates election victory on Sunak's doorstep: 'The message is clear'

Rishi Sunak is nervously awaiting the result of the West Midlands mayoral contest after suffering a series of humiliating setbacks in the local elections.

With the worst local election results for the Tories in 40 years, the prime minister’s fate could be tied to whether Tory mayor Andy Street holds on when the votes are counted on Saturday.

Tory rebels have reportedly called off the dogs for now as Teesside mayor Ben Houchen kept his seat despite a huge narrowing of the polls.

But worries persist that a defeat in the West Midlands could reignite calls for the prime minister to step aside.

Meanwhile, Mr Sunak has maintained that the Conservatives have “everything to fight for”.

Rishi Sunak looks on as Ben Houchen celebrates being returned as Tees Valley mayor
Rishi Sunak looks on as Ben Houchen celebrates being returned as Tees Valley mayor (PA Wire)

In an article for The Telegraph, Mr Sunak remained positive about the local council election results, despite a series of disastrous losses for the government.

He wrote: “Thursday’s results showed that voters are frustrated and wondering why they should vote.

“The fact that Labour is not winning in places they admit they need for a majority shows that Keir Starmer’s lack of plan and vision is hurting them. We Conservatives have everything to fight for – and we will, because we are fighting for our values and our country’s future.”

Labour insiders think Mr Street will scrape a “frustratingly narrow victory” that could be enough to see off an attempted coup by Tory MPs. They point out Mr Street had “campaigned as an independent” and not allowed Mr Sunak to campaign with him, nor did his electoral literature mention the Conservative Party.

But a senior Labour figure admitted: “It would be better for us if he [Sunak] limps on.”

In a worrying sign for Downing Street, the leader of a right-wing group of MPs has made it clear Mr Sunak will face increasing demands to move even further to the right in areas such as immigration and the culture wars should he cling on.

Sir John Hayes, leader of the Common Sense Group of around 50 MPs, told The Independent that the result would have been much worse but for the decision to film asylum seekers being rounded up in the back of vans by the government.

He said: “We need half a dozen more examples of real conservatism if we are to restore faith with those who voted for us in 2019.”

The prime minister has endured Labour seizing control of his own backyard by winning the newly created mayoral office of York and North Yorkshire. Sir Keir Starmer’s party also seized the East Midlands mayoralty a region the Tories had turned blue in 2019 during the takeover of Labour’s red wall constituencies.

In the early hours of Friday, Labour won the Blackpool South by-election from the Conservatives with a record 26 per cent swing, while a series of police and crime commissioner posts held by the Tories fell into Labour hands.

A ray of hope for Mr Sunak and his party came in Tees Valley where controversial Mr Houchen defied the odds and pulled off a victory over his Labour challenger. But the 16.3 per cent swing to Labour would be enough to wipe out all the Tory parliamentary seats in the region at a general election.

Mr Sunak made a beeline to celebrate with Lord Houchen, who did not mention the prime minister or the Conservative Party in his victory speech and apparently forgot to wear a blue rosette on the stage.

Lord Houchen, an ally of Boris Johnson, thanked voters for “backing my plan for the next four years” and was visibly uncomfortable on stage when Mr Sunak arrived for a picture.

By Friday evening, the Tories had lost more than 400 council seats and were closing in on more than 500 losses out of 985 seats – a benchmark some Tory insiders believe would trigger a vote of no confidence by MPs.

Labour Party leader Keir Starmer and shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves celebrate with new York and North Yorkshire mayor David Skaith on Friday
Labour Party leader Keir Starmer and shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves celebrate with new York and North Yorkshire mayor David Skaith on Friday (PA Wire)

Labour won all three new mayoral posts up for grabs this year, in the East Midlands, North East, and York and North Yorkshire, the latter of which covers Mr Sunak’s own Richmond constituency. For the first time in its history, Adur council in West Sussex has been won by Labour, and the Tories lost control of bellwether Basildon in Essex.

There is faint hope in Downing Street and Tory headquarters (CCHQ) that Susan Hall can pull off an unlikely victory in London thanks to low turnout and the unpopularity of Labour mayor Sadiq Khan’s ultra-low emission zone (Ulez) extension.

However, one senior Tory told The Independent: “This is clutching at straws. If Susan Hall wins it will be because of Khan and nothing else but let’s face it – she’s not going to win.”

Although Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer described the latest results as “seismic,” there are concerns for him, too.

Analysis by Sky News suggested that if the voting share at this week’s local elections were to be repeated in a general election, then Labour would still fall short of a majority.

Labour also lost control of Oldham council, with campaigns chief Pat McFadden admitting the war in Gaza and Sir Keir’s support for Israel was “a factor” in turning off Muslim voters.

Meanwhile, Conservative MPs considering a move to topple Mr Sunak were holding their counsel until all the results were in. Speaking to The Independent, one former cabinet minister said they “cannot comment until I know what has happened in the West Midlands and London”.

Dame Andrea Jenkyns, a Boris Johnson supporter, already has her letter in to 1922 Committee chairman Sir Graham Brady asking for a vote but said: “MPs are just too paralysed to do anything.”

In another suggestion that Mr Sunak could become a prisoner of the right, she called for the return of Mr Johnson and for him to appoint right-wingers Suella Braverman, Robert Jenrick and Priti Patel to his cabinet.

Nadine Dorries has said ditching Sunak would be madness
Nadine Dorries has said ditching Sunak would be madness (PA Media)

However, another senior MP who has been involved with plotters said: “I think it is over. Rishi will lead us into the next election. The results were bad but no worse than already accounted for.”

Reform UK had failed to mount a serious challenge in the areas where it stood, getting 15 per cent in red-wall Lincolnshire and failing to be a contender in the Blackpool South by-election, the Tory MP pointed out. “I think the Reform factor is being overplayed and actually they are not the threat everyone is claiming they are.”

Another Johnson ally, Nadine Dorries, claimed it would be “madness” to dump Mr Sunak.

However, the prime minister is still facing grassroots unease with David Campbell Bannerman, a leading Brexiteer and chairman of the Conservative Democratic Organisation (CDO), calling for him to be ousted.

“Rishi Sunak is buried somewhere in the bunker with his equally useless advisers – a collective cabal with little understanding or experience of politics or of how to do it. He is a liability to the party and our electoral prospects,” Mr Campbell Bannerman said.

The depth of the problems was summed up by analyst Professor Sir John Curtice, who said the results “confirmed” the terrible polls the Tories have had in recent months.

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