UK’s ruling party suffers losses in Sunak’s first electoral test

The Conservatives suffer ‘disappointing’ high-profile losses in the local council polls across England ahead of a UK-wide general vote expected next year.

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak leaves his campaign headquarters in London.
Sunak leaves his campaign headquarters in London after addressing his supporters [Phil Noble/Reuters]

The United Kingdom’s ruling Conservatives have suffered high-profile losses as results poured in from Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s first significant electoral test since he took office last year.

In the depths of the worst cost-of-living crisis in decades, the local council elections held on Thursday across swathes of England illuminated the main parties’ standing before a UK-wide general election expected next year.

Sunak admitted on Friday that it was not looking good for his Conservative Party.

“It’s always disappointing to lose hard-working Conservative councillors,” the prime minister told the Sky News broadcaster.

But he promised to press ahead with the “people’s priorities” — including halving double-digit inflation, restoring economic growth, and stopping boatloads of refugees and migrants crossing the English Channel.

The vote counting will only be complete on Friday evening, just as the UK gears up for Saturday’s coronation of King Charles III.

But the main opposition Labour Party crowed that the trend was already clear from the 230 English districts electing more than 8,000 council seats.

“These results have been a disaster for Rishi Sunak as voters punish him for the Tories’ failure,” said Shabana Mahmood, Labour’s national campaign co-ordinator.

“These results show that we are on course for a majority Labour government,” she added.

UK Labour Party leader Keir Starmer speaking at his party's annual conference in Liverpool, the UK.
Labour Party leader Keir Starmer speaks at his party’s annual conference in Liverpool, the UK [File: Henry Nicholls/Reuters]

By 9:20am local time (08:20 GMT), 62 councils had declared their results. Sunak’s Conservatives had lost 228 seats — one-third of the total they were defending so far.

That trend would put the centre-right party on course for its worst defeat in local elections since the mid-1990s, before Labour took power nationally in a landslide under Tony Blair.

Transport Minister Huw Merriman indicated that his party was paying the price for the chaotic few weeks last year when it ditched Boris Johnson and then Liz Truss as leader in quick succession.

Local constituents have been “talking about older news about former prime ministers – but saying your current leader seems to have what it takes”, he told the BBC, insisting Sunak was on the right track.

Labour was up 119 seats and took control of prized targets in Plymouth in southwest England, Medway in the southeast, and Stoke-on-Trent in the Midlands — where in 2016, 70 percent of voters backed Brexit.

Extrapolating to a national result in the next general election, Mahmood said Labour’s vote share lead over the Conservative Party stood at more than eight percent — enough, she said, for leader Keir Starmer to become prime minister.

Labour is particularly targeting its former strongholds in northern England, the so-called “red wall”, which Johnson turned Conservative in the 2019 general election on a promise to “get Brexit done”.

The smaller Liberal Democrat party was up 61 seats and making inroads in wealthy Conservative districts on the edge of London that are represented nationally by members of Sunak’s cabinet, the “blue wall”.

The centrist opposition party took control of the council in Windsor and Maidenhead, west of London, an area represented in Westminster by former Prime Minister Theresa May.

“We are exceeding all expectations,” Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey said.

“We have delivered a hammer blow to the Conservative party in the blue wall ahead of next year’s general election.”

Source: AFP