May 5, 2023 - 1:00pm

This morning, as the scale of the electoral challenge Rishi Sunak faces became clear, he may have started to wonder whether this job was worth all the trouble. Think back to the resignation letter he sent Boris Johnson a little less than a year ago, which helped seal the then-Prime Minister’s fate. The problem, Sunak said, was that Johnson’s economic and political strategy was all about avoiding tough choices. It was the job of the Prime Minister to “work hard, make sacrifices and take difficult decisions”.

In the end, it looks increasingly like Sunak has sacrificed himself to demonstrate a difficult lesson. Working hard can only get you so far in politics. Despite his criticisms, there was some method to Johnson’s governing madness. Johnson’s political skill lay in his ability to persuade both “Waitrose woman” and “Workington man” that he was on their side. Sunak, meanwhile, has pulled off what we might call the “reverse Johnson”: this week, it appears that both Hertfordshire and Hartlepool have moved decisively away from the Conservatives. 

Looking at the coverage of Sunak over the last couple of months, you could be forgiven for thinking that these elections were held in propitious circumstances for the Prime Minister. Driven by (relatively) healthy personal ratings — and the narrative that they were a “leading indicator” — the discussion in Westminster began to turn to whether Sunak could pull off an unlikely victory. 

Those ratings were a chimera for a key reason, one that again contrasts with his predecessor-but-one. The people who disliked Johnson, in December 2019 at least, were disproportionately those living in metropolitan areas and who were not voting Conservative anyway. He managed to reach, and then convert, a set of voters which had never voted Tory before. The opposite is true for Sunak: those who think that he is doing a decent job in difficult circumstances still prefer the Labour Party. All the while, voters the Conservatives previously won are turning away in droves. 

This can be seen in the early results, analysed by the political scientist Will Jennings, which suggest that Keir Starmer is making gains for Labour among the exact set of people Labour were worried could be gone for good. Specifically, in areas that are more likely to have voted Leave in 2016, places with a lower concentration of university graduates and among areas in the North West and South West.

These local results — despite the low bar the Conservative Party set for themselves — could be even grimmer than they look. As the political sociologist Paula Surridge has noted, the low turnout indicates that things could be even worse. The evidence from political science is that it is voter groups swinging back to Labour which are least likely to turn out in local elections. Come the general election, when these voters turn out in larger numbers, the backlash in the red wall could be even bigger.

Sunak still has some time left, and he might now usefully take inspiration from Starmer, who looked down and out this time two years ago, having himself suffered damaging election results in Hartlepool. In truth, Starmer has been a lucky general, his recovery since May 2021 powered first by Partygate and then by the Conservative Party’s self-immolation. In politics, as Sunak is finding out, a lucky break can be much more useful than being seen as a safe pair of hands.

Dr Alan Wager is a political scientist based at Queen Mary University of London and the Mile End Institute.