Tory mayor Andy Street loses tight West Midlands race in new blow to Sunak

Tory mayor Andy Street loses tight West Midlands election leaving Rishi Sunak’s leadership in crisis

David Maddox,Zoe Grunewald
Saturday 04 May 2024 22:04 BST
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Tory mayor Andy Street has been defeated in the crucial battle for the West Midlands in a result that has left Rishi Sunak’s premiership hanging by a thread.

The shock defeat follows a difficult campaign for the Tories amid narrowing polls and party turmoil with increasing questions over the prime minister’s leadership and Labour left to boast that the victory in the West Midlands will herald a “wipeout” of Tory MPs in the general election.

Mr Street was defeated by a margin of just 1,508 votes to Labour’s Richard Parker – 225,590 to 224,082 – but his defeat by less than 2,000 votes has had repercussions for his party across the country.

A Tory MP messaged The Independent with one word: “Catastrophe!”

A Labour source admitted that their own early predictions that Mr Street had just held on to the key region had proven to be wrong. The source said: “Even if we ran them very close it’s an almost certain wipeout for the Tories at the general election.”

The Tory West Midland’s mayor has been defeated
The Tory West Midland’s mayor has been defeated (PA)

While victory by Tory Teesside mayor Ben Houchen on Friday had calmed calls by plotters for Mr Sunak to be replaced, the results on Saturday in London and the West Midlands have reopened the debate into whether he is the right man to lead the Conservatives into the election.

Mr Sunak’s survival had been tied to Mr Street surviving alongside Tees Valley mayor Lord Houchen.

Rebel Tories have tonight reopened discussions about a leadership coup that could be launched if local elections ended up particularly bad for the party.

Election expert Sir John Curtice suggested the final numbers could equate to the party’s worst performance for 40 years, as the remaining results are expected to trickle in on Sunday afternoon.

The Independent was told that Sunak loyalists on the MPs’ Whatsapp group had “gone silent” as the results stacked up. Another source confirmed that Tory campaign chiefs were calling MPs to “calm nerves” amid concerns there could be an attempted coup.

However, Mr Sunak’s former number two in the Treasury, Sir Simon Clarke, who has previously called for the prime minister to resign, messaged to warn colleagues that the results should be “a wake-up call” and without change, the party would head for a similar defeat

As well as the mayoral elections, Tory MPs are shocked by the scale of council seats lost with 473 conceded and one more council yet to declare its results.

Worse still, Tory wins fell behind those of the Lib Dems. By Saturday afternoon, Labour had taken 1,140 seats, the Lib Dems 521 and the Tories 513.

Labour’s Richard Parker shocked the Tories with his victory in the West Midlands
Labour’s Richard Parker shocked the Tories with his victory in the West Midlands (Getty)

One senior Tory said: “I don’t know how we can go on like this. We are heading for a defeat of historic proportions at the general election.”

Further questions were raised over Mr Sunak’s leadership when it emerged that he had not voted for the Tories’ defeated London mayor candidate Susan Hall.

Despite a belief that Mr Khan was beatable he easily trounced Susan Hall by 1,088,225 votes to 812,397 in another bruising result.

The Independent asked Downing Street whether the prime minister had voted in London or the elections for the newly created mayor of York and North Yorkshire where his Richmond constituency is.

A Downing Street spokesperson said: “He postal voted in Yorkshire.”

The answer resulted in an explosion of fury from Tory MPs and activists because electoral law allows for people to vote in more than one area in local elections if they are registered there. In general elections for Parliament, people are only allowed to vote in one area.

In a sign of growing fury in the parliamentary party, a Tory MP, who campaigned for Ms Hall in London, said: “If it transpires that our party leader, who could easily have voted for Susan Hall against Sadiq Khan just couldn’t be bothered, then Tory activists in London, who have been absolutely knocking themselves out for months on her behalf, will be rightfully absolutely furious.”

There is confusion over whether Rishi Sunak voted for the Tory mayoral candidate in London
There is confusion over whether Rishi Sunak voted for the Tory mayoral candidate in London (Molly Darlington)

Meanwhile, former minister for London Paul Scully, who was controversially blocked from running as the Conservative London mayoral candidate, warned that the party under Sunak is “just constantly doing crisis management” and “had no vision for London or the country”.

Mr Scully opposed MPs replacing Mr Sunak as Tory leader and prime minister. However, he said he needed to “own the mistakes” which had allowed the much-derided Ms Hall to be the party’s candidate in London with no support or resources to fight a serious campaign.

Describing the results as “abysmal”, he added: “I am not genuflecting in front of Rishi. It's just you can't keep doing this, constantly changing horses. At the end of the day, it's not just about the leader. It's about what we are as a party doing, and we've just gone around sort of jazz hands and lost our direction.”

He also warned that he feared the party is “about to go full circle” and return to the right-wing ideology of 1997 when he first got involved in politics.

The sense of missed opportunity by the Tories was underlined when the reelected London mayor was booed as he gave his victory speech after the result was declared.

Speaking at City Hall, Mr Khan said: “Thank you from the bottom of my heart, thank you London.”

The far-right Britain First candidate interrupted and chanted “Khan killed London”. The crowd was warned that security would remove people who disrupted the speeches.

The apparent voting snub from Mr Sunak follows claims that Ms Hall has received little party support or resources in her attempts to win back London for the Tories.

There have also been claims that she is “racist and Islamophobic” which have been hotly denied by her campaign team.

However, Mr Sunak has made it clear he has little patience for Tories who border on being racist with the suspension of former deputy chairman, now Reform UK MP, Lee Anderson.

Sunak looks on as Ben Houchen celebrates victory as Tees Valley mayor
Sunak looks on as Ben Houchen celebrates victory as Tees Valley mayor (Reuters)

Questions over Mr Sunak’s leadership have come over his failure to intervene and install a strong candidate for London mayor and provide a serious vision.

The Independent recently revealed that cabinet ministers had pleaded with Mr Sunak to install motorist campaigner Howard Cox as London mayoral candidate, but he ended up joining Reform.

Mr Scully said: “The problem was that we have a weak London party which was easily pushed around.”

But the failure in the West Midlands is potentially an even bigger blow for the Tories.

Recent polling has seen them set to lose an estimated 29 seats out of the 44 they hold in the wider region. According to Labour, the damage to the parliamentary seats for the Tories could be even worse if the mayoral vote is replicated. Winning the West Midlands has also historically been the region which parties needed to win to form a government.

A Savanta poll last night put Labour’s national lead at 18 points with a share of 44 per cent to 26 per cent for the Tories.

The vote share in the local elections had Labour at 34 per cent to the Tories’ 25 per cent. The 25 per cent vote share was the joint-lowest recorded for the party in local elections.

One Tory MP told The Independent they were “feeling glum” and had not decided what to do regarding Mr Sunak but described the West Midlands result as “a calamity”.

Even if Mr Street had won comfortably his election campaign had been built on having no Conservative branding or mention of Mr Sunak.

Of Labour’s victory in Birmingham, Sir Keir Starmer said: “This phenomenal result was beyond our expectations. People across the country have had enough of Conservative chaos and decline and voted for change with Labour. Our fantastic new mayor Richard Parker stands ready to deliver a fresh start for the West Midlands. “My changed Labour party is back in the service of working people, and stands ready to govern. Labour will turn the page after fourteen years of Tory decline and usher in a decade of national renewal. That change starts today.”

Labour’s Sadiq Khan alongside Susan Hall
Labour’s Sadiq Khan alongside Susan Hall (PA)

The one major success, Lord Houchen’s reelection in Tees Valley, had similarly seen him give no credit to Mr Sunak in his victory speech. He did not even don a blue rosette.

Ahead of the election on Thursday, Lord Houchen had said that voters had said they would support him but not the Conservative Party, splitting between staying at home and supporting the right wing Reform UK, founded by Nigel Farage.

Already campaign teams for cabinet ministers Penny Mordaunt and Kemi Badenoch are preparing for a leadership battle while supporters of former ministers Dame Priti Patel, Suella Braverman and Robert Jenrick are also getting ready.

In an article for The Telegraph, the prime minister 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.”

Writing for The Independent party grandee Sir Liam Fox called for MPs to get behind the prime minister.

He said: “Rallying behind the prime minister with ruthless message discipline and a narrative that where Labour describes the problems, Conservatives deliver solutions could yet be the prelude to the biggest political turnaround in decades.”

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