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Local elections: no way back for the Tories

Dead man walking. Credit: Getty

May 5, 2024 - 8:00am

Rishi Sunak’s only hope for a silver lining in this weekend’s results came from the fact that we no longer do overnight counting for local elections.

With the mayoral results coming in this weekend, there was a chance that victories by Ben Houchen and especially Andy Street would allow the Conservatives to end the day with a tiny narrative upswing.

It was not to be. Houchen did hold on in Tees Valley — one would have hoped so, given that last time he took more than 70% of the vote — but in the West Midlands Labour has managed to bring Street’s eight-year run as mayor to an end.

One cannot help but wonder if the man himself now wishes he had quit the party back in October after the Prime Minister stood in Manchester and, against Street’s strongest advice, cancelled the northern leg of High Speed 2.

Statistically, of course, a narrow victory doesn’t tell us much about the national picture that a narrow defeat wouldn’t. But narratively, the difference is everything — and politics is, among other things, the business of stories.

What story can CCHQ possibly spin out of these results? The poor ministers out on the media round will try their best, arguing that failing to rout his opponents by even heavier margins poses serious questions for Sir Keir Starmer — about whom they continue to insist the nation is unenthusiastic.

But the bald truth is this: for the Conservatives, these results are an endless vista of dark clouds with hardly a silver lining in sight. The odd defence in a target council, and a clutch of police and crime commissioners squeaking home by tiny margins on woeful turnouts, cannot disguise it.

The loss of hundreds of councillors is a heavy blow. Not just because council elections — which hinge much more on party brand — seem more likely to presage a general election than the mayoral contests but because councillors, along with the friends and family they persuade to help, are the front-line infantry of a political party.

Many of those who have just lost their seats — perhaps, like Street, in spite of years of hard and unglamorous work in town halls — will be much less likely to give up their cold November evenings to help re-elect this government. A difficult election just became that much harder.

Reform UK is also belatedly maturing into a credible threat. Where it stood candidates, the Conservatives suffered, even if it failed to build up a councillor base of its own. Heaven knows the panic it would have unleashed among Tory MPs had it edged into second place in Blackpool South, as it almost did.

In London, meanwhile, the Conservatives have once again posted a paltry result against Sadiq Khan, who on his record ought to be an eminently beatable opponent. On crime, on housing, on nightlife, on so much, he has failed and continues to fail the capital.

The good news for Sunak is that, as it stands, this rout seems unlikely to trigger a move against him. Almost two-thirds of Tory members oppose it; most of those who covet his job prudently want to wait until after the general election to claim it.

Perhaps, too, the result will shake the party from any lingering complacency, forcing CCHQ to abandon the absurd idea of fighting the next election with an 80/20 strategy and pouring all its resources into the sort of deep defence the state of the polls clearly demands.

Or perhaps, by the time MPs are back in London on Monday, the party will have completely lost its head. Either way, things are going from bad to worse for Rishi Sunak.


Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

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Robbie K
Robbie K
2 months ago

Sunak is obviously a lame duck, but aside from the Mayors Labour ought to be disappointed with these results. The big winners are the Liberals, Greens and Independents picking up protest votes.
The big danger with Reform standing in the GE is they will give Labour a huge majority, and that is never healthy for good government.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
2 months ago
Reply to  Robbie K

I agree; by 4pm on Friday the combined gain by the Greens and other Independents was still in excess of Labour’s.

Despite the Tory rout, Labour barely managed to convert 2 in 5 of the seats up for grabs. Then there’s the tactical Muslim voting.

Labour will win the next election, but it may not be the proposed ‘landslide ‘ the MSM keep salivating about.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
2 months ago

Out of over 2,500 council seats up for grabs on Thursday, Reform didn’t win a single one. Andy Street lost by 1,500 votes, while there were 34,000 votes for Reform. Destroying the Tory party at the next election will not see them replaced with a “real” Conservative Party, but rather by scores of Labour, Lib Dems and Green MPs. They will demand a lot more “climate change emergency”, votes at 16, citizens assemblies, BDS against Israel, further restrictions on free speech, race and LGBT+ quotas in employment and universities, weakening of border security, reversal of Brexit by stealth, anti car policies, Sue Grey and the triumph of the Blob, and so on. That is what a vote for Reform will help to deliver.

Phil Day
Phil Day
2 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

Actually, reform did get some councillors elected and in the process helped my local authority go from 30 tories to 13 and the leader lost his seat to a reform candidate. Not a lot but from little acorns etc.
While l dread the prospect of a Labour majority (especially a landslide) the Tories are clearly rotten to the core, repairing it isn’t realistic so the only intelligent option is to tear it down and replace it with something better. Reform may not (yet) be that ‘something better’ but it will continue to get my vote all the time it is acting as a catalyst for change.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
2 months ago
Reply to  Phil Day

That’s the equivalent of the purist hard left trade union activists who denounced Jim Callaghan as a traitor and ushered in 18 years of Thatcherism, followed by Blair. Even if Reform was positioned to challenge for power by about 2040, the country would have been utterly transformed by then. Abandoning a strong electoral brand 200 years in the making for a one wholly owned by Nigel Farage is bonkers. If you don’t like the Conservative Party, join it and change it, as Trumpists have done with the Republicans.

Phil Day
Phil Day
2 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

You suggest joining the Tories and working for change from within. Why, what do you think will change? The leadership have been treating their supporters as mugs for years and that isn’t going to change. Simply citing a party’s history is just encouraging them to rest on their (recently tarnished) laurels and following your logic maybe we should do away with labour and reinstate the liberal party.
I think you misunderstand Reform’s purpose and appear to assume all their supporters are ‘far right’ (l’m certainly not). By chasing the same group of swing voters in swing seats (Matt Goodwin’s ‘new elite’ ) both major parties have converged on a position which is to the left of the general population on many issues. This is very damaging to democracy and will not change without a shock to the system. I see Reform as being a disruptive influence capable of delivering that shock to one side of the political scales. Labour will win the next election regardless so whether that shock causes the destruction of the Tories is irrelevant so long as it triggers a realignment of the ‘Overton window’ towards the position of the general population.

Santiago Excilio
Santiago Excilio
2 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

Members cannot influence CPHQ. There is no mechanism available to do as you suggest, which is why they are resigning their membership in their droves.

John Dellingby
John Dellingby
2 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

And if we vote the Tories in for another term, we will just get at least most of that, but a lot more subtly than with Labour. I think the only way to end the nonsense Labour will want to introduce is call their bluff. Let them and we’ll see people change their tune when it either impacts them or looks like it will.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
2 months ago
Reply to  John Dellingby

They won’t change their tune. The new normal just replaces the old normal, and Overton window shifts.

Trevor Parsons
Trevor Parsons
2 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

I totally agree with your observations and with just how dire and even seriously damaging (hopefully short-term) a Labour government will be. The worst part of it though is that I STILL wouldn’t want to see the Conservatives re-elected. There must be seen to be consequences for complacency, incompetence, self-gratification etc. or we will just get more of it, from whichever side happens to be in power. I doubt things can get better without first getting worse.
Some first step has to be taken towards political realignment and an acceptance that those in power can no longer consistently put their views and preferences ahead of those widely recognised to be held by a clear majority of the public. We cannot let our FPTP system be used to enable continuation of that.
When difference of political opinion was principally just economically-based, it was reasonably well catered for by two Parties with different views taking it in turns. Now, far more of our differences are just as strongly held but are culturally-based. Yet across all Parties, as throughout media / academic / managerial circles, much the same peer-approved liberal progressive cultural views are held by all. Other views, though often more widely held in broader circles and perfectly acceptable, are kept from adequate representation and the possibility of adoption. Ending that and the cynicism it now creates should be our top priority, pretty much regardless.

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
2 months ago
Reply to  Trevor Parsons

Is accommodation of all the differences that there are now possible under a two party system. Does it require PR?

Santiago Excilio
Santiago Excilio
2 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

Council seats are not the the point.

I’ve posted this before on Unherd. The strategy of Reform UK is pretty clear to anyone who listens to Tice:

1- Bleed votes from the tories so that they are destroyed at the next GE
2- Allow labour free reign to completely wreck the country
3- Use the next 5 years to build the requisite infrastructure
4- Become a primary contender in the 2029 GE

El Uro
El Uro
2 months ago

In London, meanwhile, the Conservatives have once again posted a paltry result against Sadiq Khan, who on his record ought to be an eminently beatable opponent. On crime, on housing, on nightlife, on so much, he has failed and continues to fail the capital.
.
Who cares? Look at London’s demographics. You have already lost your country.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
2 months ago
Reply to  El Uro

Labour won London by 48% to 32% in the 2019 general election, despite being smashed nationally. A 44% to 33% victory when Labour are riding high nationally is actually a dismal performance by Khan, and in fact by no means a pallid one by the Conservatives.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
2 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

The commentator to which you respond isn’t interested in facts so much (as per previous comments) as using overblown ‘soundbites’.

El Uro
El Uro
2 months ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

Nothing like this. It’s just that the truth is unpleasant to you and you try to accuse the speaker of it of lying.
.
I honestly admit that it is extremely unpleasant for me to see what is happening in Britain, the BLM protests (in Britain!), the situation with transgenders, laws about “hate” speech or support for Hamas.
As Shafarevich argued, to destroy society (literally!) it is necessary to destroy three institutions: family, religion and private property.
Your elite, pandering to your “revolutionaries”, practically destroyed the first two institutions, hoping that private property will remain intact. They are not the first. The Russian bourgeoisie sincerely sympathized with the revolutionaries. The educated stratum in France before the French Revolution also strived to be “progressive.”

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
2 months ago
Reply to  El Uro

Time London became a fourth crown dependency. It is no longer England.

Pedro the Exile
Pedro the Exile
2 months ago
Reply to  El Uro

Its quite staggering that a war in the middle east which we have no direct involvement in is impacting voting in the UK-or maybe terrifying?????

El Uro
El Uro
2 months ago

Jews are like the canary in the coal mine

David McKee
David McKee
2 months ago

Sunak clings on, because he thinks that dealing decisively with illegal immigrants will transform his prospects for the general election. It won’t.

A few flights to Rwanda will make no difference whatsoever. People have made up their minds about this government. Postponing the inevitable risks alienating even more people. Far better to go to the country now, and may government ministers take their medicine like men.

Anthony Sutcliffe
Anthony Sutcliffe
2 months ago
Reply to  David McKee

I extrapolate from my own feelings on the matter…terribly unwise but nevertheless…

Robust action a number of months ago would have persuaded me to back him. But he’s not interested interested in robust action. Either that or he can’t because his left wing allow him to. It amounts to the same, the Conservative Party won’t deliver the robust action on a range of issues that the country requires.

They need to go away and work out what they’re for. Just a shame we have to put up with labour while they do

Martin M
Martin M
2 months ago
Reply to  David McKee

I was initially well disposed towards Sunak, but he lost me with his smoking ban.

AC Harper
AC Harper
2 months ago

“deep defence the state” – problematic for a true Conservative and a reflex for the Labour machine. It seems that both main parties are locked into old habits that many people distrust.
I suspect that with a Labour landslide predicted for the next General Election the significant lesson will be the number of people turning out to vote…

Richard Abbot
Richard Abbot
2 months ago

There was no way back for the Tories once Boris announced lockdown in March 2020.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
2 months ago
Reply to  Richard Abbot

I believe you’re right on this. Boris was totally incapable of coping with “events, dear boy, events..” as Macmillan put it.
In fact neither was Cameron, May or Sunak…

Martin M
Martin M
2 months ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

I doubt that anyone would could potentially have been PM in 2020 (say the five most senior Conservative and Labour MPs) would have acted much differently. After all, pretty much the whole Western World went down broadly the same path as Britain.

Martin M
Martin M
2 months ago
Reply to  Richard Abbot

You think if Starmer was PM in 2020, he wouldn’t have imposed lockdown?

2 plus 2 equals 4
2 plus 2 equals 4
2 months ago

There’s been no way back for them since PartyGate and Truss-onomics.

That was the tipping point when the swing, centrist and soft-Blue voters decided they are an irredeemably venal clownshow and would give them a kicking at every opportunity until they f*ck off.

Combine that with the fraction of the electorate which flat out hates them – progressives, young people, certain ethnic groups – and the writing has been on the wall for a couple of years.

j watson
j watson
2 months ago

Country is fed up. Gradually they’ll grow to appreciate Starmer a bit more because he’s a much more practical politician than seen to date, but for now not overly inspired. Regardless though they are going to get rid of this shower.
Remarkable listening to Braverman this AM. All the blame on Sunak. Nothing on why she signed off so many immigration visa’s before deciding to resign on something else. Wonder why? Because when faced with the trade offs the Tories, and the Right more broadly, don’t want to be honest about some of the practical consequences and how they’d manage them. You see it here on Unherd almost daily. Unherd my posterior. Country’s heard enough of this sloganeering rubbish and wants some competence and honesty.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
2 months ago
Reply to  j watson

Well you won’t get honesty from Starmer; he even pretends not to know about human female anatomy, let alone accept that Corbyn and Livingstone aren’t anti Semitic.

Of course Labour will win but there isn’t much enthusiasm for them.

Santiago Excilio
Santiago Excilio
2 months ago
Reply to  j watson

If you imagine Starmer is going to deliver anything other than socialism mixed with identity politics then you can’t have been paying much attention. What has Starmer actually promised? Nothing. Does he have have any clear policies? No. Is he prepared to knife, twist and lie his way to the top? Yes, just ask Corbyn. The man is an ideological, intellectual and moral vacuum.

Martin M
Martin M
2 months ago

I am hopeful that his identity politics will somewhat temper his socialism.

Andrew R
Andrew R
2 months ago
Reply to  j watson

“Country’s heard enough of this sloganeering rubbish and wants some competence and honesty”.

You are pushing at an open door here JW. Hardly anyone here cares for the Tories. The country does want competence and honesty, they haven’t had it for three decades. Labour under Starmer won’t be any different just more useless ideology. Ideology is the antithesis of honest and competent governance.”

Starmer’s done a good job of avoiding all those tricky questions on immigration and identity politics, he’s strong on slogans and cliches however.

You’re good with cliches, you offer them up here regularly.

Martin M
Martin M
2 months ago
Reply to  Andrew R

To paraphrase Sir Humphrey Appleby – “You want competence and honestly from your politicians? When did you acquire this taste for luxuries?”

Andrew R
Andrew R
2 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

Do they really have to be this bad!

King David
King David
2 months ago
Reply to  Andrew R

I thought you White geniuses had ALL the answers?

Andrew R
Andrew R
2 months ago
Reply to  King David

We do, except we have been corrupted by loony identity politicians who think they have ALL the answers.

They don’t.

Brian Kneebone
Brian Kneebone
2 months ago

Just a general observation. The voter turn out to vote in general and local elections seems to declining in many anglophone jurisdictions. Increasingly, governments and administrators gain power with decreasing popular support and claim a mandate to do whatever. It might be legally correct but ethical legitimacy is surely a growing concern.
Ultimately, the system will lose credibility, maybe support.
Then what? General apathy, increasing quasi political structures, or a continuation of SNAFU.