Routed Conservatives should end Britain’s damaging drift

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UK governments expecting to do badly in local elections like to leak disaster scenarios in advance, in hope they can later claim to have done better than expected. In the event, the results for Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives in polls in England and Wales on Thursday were about as bad as they could have been. They leave the party sliding towards defeat in a general election that must be held by January, and Sunak in a precarious position. They leave the country too, in limbo, run by a government that seems to have run out of road.

The final score sheet was for the Conservatives a picture of almost unmitigated gloom. More than 470 council seats lost, nearly half of those they were defending; the Blackpool South parliamentary seat lost to Labour in another whopping by-election swing. They failed to win nine out of 10 metro mayor elections, including three newly created posts — one of which ought to be natural Tory territory. Their right-wing candidate in London lost to Labour’s Sadiq Khan, who won comfortably despite an indifferent record.

The Conservatives drew solace from Lord Ben Houchen holding on as Tees Valley mayor. But the sometimes controversial Houchen distanced himself from his party, “forgetting” his blue rosette at the count. A strong personal brand and record of local achievement could not save the Tories’ Andy Street in the West Midlands, even though he outstripped his party’s national showing.

The toppling of Street capped a robust performance by the opposition Labour party, marred only by losing council seats in some strongly Muslim areas due to dissatisfaction over its stance on the war in Gaza. Its projected national voting share was lower than recent opinion polls, but Sir Keir Starmer’s leadership will be happy to use that as a rallying cry to supporters not to be complacent.

The Conservatives risk drawing all the wrong conclusions from their rout. A rumoured right-wing plot to oust Sunak appeared initially to have fizzled out, though some rebels may be reconsidering after Street’s loss. Another leadership change would, in truth, be folly. Installing a fourth prime minister since 2019 would only convince more voters that the Tories, in power since 2010, have lost credibility.

Rightwingers are pressing Sunak to move further in the direction of strategies such as his misbegotten plan to deport irregular migrants to Rwanda. They warn that the populist Reform UK party, founded by arch-Brexiter Nigel Farage, is taking votes on the right. Yet this is to misconstrue entirely the reasons for the Conservatives’ disfavour: they are not seen as delivering on key issues for voters in the political centre, including the cost of living and dismal public services.

A rightward lurch might, perhaps, claw back a little territory from Reform. But it would cost the Conservatives much more in the centre. Tories who won or came close to doing so in these elections did so because local voters felt they were achieving positive results for them. They offered not small government and tax-cutting, but active government backed by public spending. For many centrist voters, the Conservatives have regained their old reputation as the “nasty” party even while being ineffective. Doubling down on this is not a winning combination.

The message of the latest ballots is that large parts of Britain are crying out for a fresh start. Sunak’s Conservatives may judge it in their interest to hold on a few months more before calling an election in hope the economy and their fortunes revive. This might, in theory, give them time to devise a more compelling electoral offer. But such a delay is not in the interests of the country. The UK needs an election sooner rather than later, and an end to a debilitating sense of disorder and drift.

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