Rishi Sunak prepares for bruising elections verdict

Rishi Sunak prepares for bruising elections verdict

Rishi Sunak is braced for a bruising set of local election results in the final test of public opinion before the general election expected later this year.

Forecasts suggest the Tories could lose up to half of the council seats they are defending, with Chancellor Jeremy Hunt saying the party expects to suffer “significant losses”.

Most of the seats up for re-election were last contested in 2021, at the peak of Boris Johnson’s popularity as the Covid-19 vaccine was rolled out.

A poor set of results will increase pressure on Mr Sunak’s grip on the leadership of the Conservative Party.

With the general election expected later this year, the results from council, mayoral and police and crime commissioner contests and the Blackpool South parliamentary by-election will be closely scrutinised for signs of whether Labour's national opinion poll leads can be turned into electoral success.

There are also other more high profile contests taking place including 11 mayoral elections most notably in London where it is a battle between frontrunners, Labour incumbent Sadiq Khan and Tory challenger Susan Hall.

The London mayoral hopefuls go to vote (ES Composite)
The London mayoral hopefuls go to vote (ES Composite)

While the Blackpool South by-election and some council results are expected in the early hours of Friday, the final declarations will not come until Sunday.

Conservative mayors Andy Street in the West Midlands and Tees Valley's Ben Houchen are also facing key re-election battles, with polls suggesting tough fights with their Labour opponents.

Forecasts have consistently put Mr Khan ahead of Ms Hall, with a poll published on Wednesday by Savanta giving him a 10-point advantage after his lead tapered over the campaign.

Both main parties have sought to manage expectations ahead of polling day, with Mr Hunt acknowledging governments can get "punished" in local votes.

He told Sky News' Politics Hub: "We are expecting to see significant losses. That often happens in local elections."

Tory peer and polling expert Lord Hayward said: "I expect the Tories to lose upwards of 400 seats."

But he suggested that Mr Sunak's position was not in immediate jeopardy.

"In recent days I have been left with the very clear impression that, amongst Tory MPs, the 'let's have a leadership election' balloon has been substantially deflated," he said.

However, "an audible, very small, group will disagree and probably do so early".

Meanwhile, Labour said the mayoral system favours incumbents, though Sir Keir Starmer is "hopeful" of success in the West Midlands.

Conservative wins for both Mr Street and Mr Houchen would offer the Tories a ray of light in what could be a dismal set of results but experts warned the metro mayor races would be the "least reliable indicator" of what could happen at a general election.

Both candidates received backing from Mr Johnson and appear to have distanced themselves from their party allegiance throughout campaigning.

Polling expert Professor Sir John Curtice said the Conservative Party was emphasising the two contests "because they think they might manage to win the contest and therefore they'll be able to cover whatever disasters happen elsewhere".

"Because of the personal votes of these two, (these contests are) going to be the least reliable indicator," he said.

"Equally, conversely here in London, Sadiq Khan will not do as well as the Labour Party would do in a general election because Sadiq has a negative personal vote. But this city is now so strong Labour, he's going to win anyway," he said.

Voters across England and Wales were also choosing who will serve as police and crime commissioners.

Labour's national campaign co-ordinator Pat McFadden said: "The most important election of the night is the historic by-election in Blackpool, caused by yet more Tory chaos and scandal. It's the only election today where voters have had the opportunity to directly reject Rishi Sunak's party in Westminster.

"It's going to be a long night and the full picture of results from local elections may not be clear until over the weekend, but we expect to see Labour gains that show we're making progress in the places we need to win the next general election."

The Liberal Democrats, who have focused campaigning efforts in traditional Conservative areas, said polling day was a moment for the Prime Minister to "face the music".

Sir Ed Davey said the results would be a "damning verdict on record waiting lists, sewage destroying rivers, and the worst cost-of-living crisis in a generation".

"The country knows the buck stops at the door of Downing Street," he said.

The relatively new requirement for voters to show photographic identification continued to cause problems, including for Mr Johnson, who as prime minister introduced the changes.

He was turned away while attempting to cast his ballot in South Oxfordshire, where a police and crime commissioner for the Thames Valley is being elected, Sky News reported.

But a spokesman said he returned to the polling stations with the correct identification and voted Conservative.

The Government said it intends to make veterans' ID cards a valid form of voter identification after former service personnel were turned away from polling stations.

Veterans minister Johnny Mercer apologised to those who had been unable to use their veterans' ID card to vote in the local elections on Thursday, vowing to "do all I can" to have it added to the list of valid identification.

Jeremy Hunt is reportedly hosting a summit (James Manning/PA) (PA Wire)
Jeremy Hunt is reportedly hosting a summit (James Manning/PA) (PA Wire)