• Sunday, May 26, 2024

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Comment: Sunak has to offer a competitive election to avoid Tory wipeout

The prime minister will survive these local election results, unlike almost half of the thousand Conservative councillors who tried to get re-elected.

Rishi Sunak (Photo by Omar Marques/Getty Images)

By: Sunder Katwala

MY DAD still plans to vote for Rishi Sunak at the general election. He mostly feels that somebody should. He sees the prime minister as a decent man, trying his best in difficult times. Because dad arrived in Britain during the week after Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech, he may well place more symbolic significance on Sunak having been able to become prime minister than many younger British Indian voters would.

Having recently turned 80, dad has often been a persuadable swing voter over those decades. “This is the NHS. We are all Labour around here,” another doctor told him, so dad cast his first vote for Harold Wilson. My mum later converted him to the Conservatives before my younger brother, just old enough to vote in 1997, signed him up briefly as a member of Tony Blair’s Labour party.

But dad would not expect to be voting for the winning side this time. This sounds more like a sympathy vote for the person than his unruly party. What he had not heard about, until I mentioned it, was the speculation about Conservative MPs considering changing the prime minister yet again. The party would certainly lose his vote by doing that.

The one piece of good political news for Sunak in this election week was about the vote that is not going to happen. He will survive these local election results, unlike almost half of the thousand Conservative councillors who tried to get re-elected. The results were just as bad as the party feared – yet the leadership plots simply evaporated. Most Tory MPs believe that more leadership shenanigans would simply generate public disdain.

Suella Braverman argued that it was too late to change leaders now. Her advice that “the hole to dig us out of is the prime minister’s, and it’s time for him to start shovelling,” seemed to ignore Denis Healey’s first rule of holes: “when in one, stop digging”. She proposes more tax cuts, getting tougher on immigration and quitting the ECHR as her recipe for revival.

London’s Labour mayor Sadiq Khan proved a survivor too, seeing off jitters about a voting system with no second preference by increasing his million-strong vote. Becoming the first London mayor to secure a third term means Khan can anticipate three and a half years working alongside a Labour government: a new opportunity to define his City Hall legacy.

His Conservative opponent, Susan Hall, ran a negative campaign, against Khan, crime and Ulez (ultra low emission zone). The Conservatives should not write off their ability to compete for power in an increasingly diverse capital, but need to find candidates and arguments able to expand support beyond the London party’s core vote.

Andy Street had managed to do just that, sitting as West Midlands Mayor for eight years before falling short this time by just 1,500 votes of over 600,000 cast. Many Conservatives hope Street may seek to join the Commons class of 2024, when Solihull selects a candidate. He could become one the most prominent Tory moderates in the next parliament – though would need to adapt his experience and skills of governing to the challenges and frustrations of opposition.

The genuine respect between Street and Labour’s Richard Parker contrasted with the mutual animosity of the London candidates. But there were uglier sentiments too, as Labour sources in the region prematurely declared defeat, the day before the votes were counted, blaming Hamas for Labour losing support among Muslim voters. Labour MPs were quick to condemn these unauthorised briefings as prejudiced.

Independent candidate Akmed Yakoob won almost 70,000 West Midlands votes for his campaign focused on Palestine, including a fifth of votes cast in Birmingham. That will include both the largest share of Muslim voters and votes beyond the Muslim community, too. The result will boost Yakoob’s profile ahead of his general election bid to unseat Shabana Mahmood, shadow justice secretary, in Birmingham Ladywood. That is one of three Westminster constituencies where Muslim voters make up just over half of the electorate, though Labour won eight in ten votes across communities last time.

Sunder Katwala

Those in Labour hoping that dialogue with lost supporters remains possible may be encouraged by the surprising fact that more than two-thirds of Yakoob’s supporters cast a Labour vote on the same day – because the low-profile police commissioner election was a straight Labour versus Conservative contest, where few voters abstained. George Galloway, who backed Yakoob in the West Midlands, saw his party take two council seats in Rochdale, rather short of the local electoral earthquake he had predicted.

Sunak’s prize for surviving this week of electoral setbacks is that he will almost certainly now get to face the voters himself at a general election as prime minister, once he decides when that moment of reckoning should come. Sunak’s responsibility is to try to offer the voters a competitive election and he will hope to avoid the electoral wipeout that some pollsters predict. But these local election results show why my dad’s vote is unlikely to save him.

(The author is the director of British Future)

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