The British Conservative Party is taking a local election brush
ohN MAY 3rd, while Tory Party foot soldiers were pushing their final round of leaflets through front doors in towns across England, Rishi Sunak, the prime minister, was addressing a gathering at the Re- development in London. The event was the fifth birthday of Onward, a think tank close to Mr Sunak’s administration (Will Tanner, former head of Onward, is now the prime minister’s deputy chief of staff). Mr. Sunak was mocking the ambitious things that mixed with the members of his cabinet. “Looking around this room tonight, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many Tory parliamentary candidates in one place since my own election,” he said.
Their career prospects have now worsened. Local elections held in much of England on May 4 resulted in heavy losses for the Tories. They point out that the party will lose power at the next general election, which is expected to be held next year. But it is less clear whether the Labor Party is opposed to forming a government with an absolute majority. Expectations of a hung parliament – already a key issue for many government and opposition MPs – will grow.
Local elections tend to be cyclical: parties gain ground locally when they are opposed nationally, and lose it when they are in office. By early afternoon on May 5 it was clear that Mr. Sunak’s party was taking a hit. With 222 out of 230 councilors nominated, the Tories had lost 1,038 councillors, exceeding the party’s worst forecast. Labour, meanwhile, had gained 517 councilors and taken control of 21 councils, including areas that will be crucial in the next general election, such as Blackpool, Dover, Middlesbrough and Swindon. Labor has now overtaken the Tories as the largest party in local government, a position they last held between 1991 and 2002 (see chart).
Sir Keir Starmer, the Labor leader, announced that his party was on course for a governing majority at the next general election. Actually, that’s uncertain. What local elections in parts of England mean for a national ballot is difficult to predict. Local turnout tends to be lower and Labor tends to underperform its national polls, but the Lib Dems, a smaller opposition party, often overperform. A projection by Sir John Curtice of the University of Strathclyde for the BBC suggested that the local election results were equivalent to a national vote share of 35% for Labour; for the Conservatives of 26%; the Lib Dems, 20%; and others, 19%. That, said Sir John, would result in a hung parliament in a general election, with Labor winning 312 seats, 14 short of an absolute majority.
Labor say their majority would depend on Scotland’s performance, where they hope to make big gains at the expense of the Scottish National Party, and sit out the this round of local elections. Maybe. But Philip Cowley of Queen Mary University of London notes that Labour’s performance in the local elections was weaker than those the party and the Tories put up in comparable votes a year before each got power man back in 1997 and 2010 respectively. Labor’s lead is also much narrower than the 15-point advantage it enjoyed in national opinion polls, not to mention the 37 points one survey in October gave, during the short administration of Liz Truss.
That suggests that the performance of the Lib Dems may be crucial at the next general election. As Labor regains ground in areas that voted for Brexit in 2016 and are home to fewer graduates, the Lib Dems continue to move forward in towns that are relatively rich, which are left in the south of England. Labor and the Lib Dems are only rivals in a handful of seats, and Sir Ed Davey, the leader of the Lib Dems, has refused to rule out a coalition with Sir Keir in the event of a hung parliament. The electoral coalition assembled by Boris Johnson in 2019, of Northern Leave voters and Southern Voters, is being pulled apart, notes Robert Ford from the University of Manchester.
Mr Sunak warned party members on May 3 that voters would kick his party “for everything that has happened in the last year” – a period that included how Mr Johnson stepped down from office in July 2022 and the 45-day agonizing premiership. from Ms. Truss. In time, he said, voters would reward the stability his administration had restored, as the National Health Service recovers from the impact of the covid-19 pandemic and reduces inflation. “Our politics no longer feel like box office drama, and our friends and allies know we’re back,” he said.
Mr Sunak’s Tory colleagues largely buy that argument, despite a small but vocal faction calling for Mr Johnson to be reinstated, believing he was removed against the wishes of the membership. the party There is no real threat to Mr Sunak’s leadership, partly because many MPs consider his performance to be diligent but also because they know that the Tories’ problems cannot be solved by another change at the top.
However, voters are slow to forgive the Conservative Party for last year’s crisis. And the improvement in living standards and public services that Mr. Sunak needs has been just as slow to come. Time is running out for the Tories. ■