Rishi Sunak on rack as Tory election losses mount

Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives were on the rack on Friday after the party was trounced by Labour in the Blackpool South parliamentary by-election and faced huge losses in local elections across England and Wales.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said his party’s victory in Blackpool, secured with a 26 per cent swing, was “seismic”, while early results suggested the Tories could lose half the council seats they were defending.

Sunak’s leadership of the UK governing party is expected to come under renewed pressure as Tory MPs wake up to the electoral carnage, knowing they will soon face a general election that has to be called this year.

The prime minister’s allies hope the Conservatives can hold on to key mayoralties in Tees Valley, where the result is due on Friday lunchtime, and the West Midlands, where the outcome will not be known until Saturday.

The figures were based on results in 35 of the 107 councils being contested, while some voters in England and Wales were also electing mayors as well as police and crime commissioners.

Sir John Curtice, the veteran elections expert, said the results were “not far short” of catastrophic for the Conservatives and “one of the worst, if not the worst” result for the party in local elections for 40 years.

Starmer’s overnight focus was on Labour’s parliamentary by-election victory, where the new MP, Chris Webb, beat the Conservatives’ David Jones with a 26 per cent swing. Reform UK came a narrow third, just 117 votes behind the Conservatives.

“This seismic win in Blackpool South is the most important result today,” Starmer said. “This is the one contest where voters had the chance to send a message to Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives directly, and that message is an overwhelming vote for change.”

Labour’s victory in Blackpool South was its third-biggest swing against the Conservatives in a postwar by-election and is ominous for Tory MPs defending similar working-class seats in the “red wall” of northern England.

Curtice told the BBC that the 26 per cent swing was “not an isolated case” and was the fifth such by-election since 2019 where the swing was more than 20 percentage points.

Labour overturned a slender Tory majority of 3,690 votes to take the parliamentary seat with a 7,607 majority. The seat was formerly held by Scott Benton, who was forced to quit in a lobbying scandal. Turnout was about 32 per cent, down from 57 per cent in the 2019 general election.

Reform UK, formerly the Brexit party, secured 17 per cent of the vote in Blackpool South, one of the races it focused on, after standing candidates for only 12 per cent of contested council seats.

The fact that Reform UK, founded by Nigel Farage, did not come second will be one crumb of comfort for Tory strategists, although its performance was another reminder of how it is splitting the vote on the right.

A Conservative spokesperson said: “This was always going to be a difficult election given the specific circumstances related to the previous incumbent. What has been clear is that a vote for Reform is a vote for Sir Keir Starmer.”

It was not all good news for Labour. The party lost control of Oldham council in Greater Manchester, after ceding several seats to independents who stood on a pro-Palestine platform. It also lost seats in Newcastle.

Pat McFadden, Labour’s elections co-ordinator, admitted that the Gaza war was costing the party votes. “There’s no denying this is a factor in some parts of the country,” he said.

The Conservatives also narrowly held on to power in Harlow in Essex, a Con-Lab battleground seat. A Tory figure claimed the result showed there was “absolutely no love for Keir Starmer”.

As counting continued, Labour had made net gains of 58 council seats by dawn against 96 Tory losses. The Liberal Democrats and Greens had also made advances with nine and 13 new seats, respectively.

About a third of the councils holding elections counted results overnight and posted them in the early hours of Friday.

The first mayoral election results, for the East Midlands, North East, Tees Valley, and York and North Yorkshire, will be announced at about lunchtime on Friday, while results from London and the West Midlands will be declared on Saturday.

Victory in either or both of the Tees Valley and West Midlands mayoralties will be seized on by Sunak to try to reassure his restive party, but Downing Street is braced for new criticism of his leadership in the coming hours.

Number 10 is on alert for the possibility that more Tory MPs will submit letters of no confidence in his leadership; 52 would trigger a confidence vote.

Tory chair Richard Holden insisted on Friday morning that Sunak was safe. “The prime minister is going to lead the party into the general election, there’s no doubt about that,” he said.

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