Sunak faces his first electoral challenge as prime minister
In national polls, Labour has built a double-digit lead over the Conservatives, and is treating the municipal elections as a referendum on Tory rule
UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (Getty Images)
The Conservatives, led by prime minister Rishi Sunak, are anticipating significant losses in Thursday’s (4) local council elections, marking their first major electoral challenge since Sunak assumed leadership in the midst of a tumultuous period last year, which saw the UK with its third leader in a matter of weeks.
Against the backdrop of an unprecedented cost-of-living crisis, these elections in England will provide insight into the current standing of the major parties in the run-up to a nationwide general election, projected to take place next year.
At the last parliamentary clash before polls opened at 7 am, opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer on Wednesday (3) pressed on Tory wounds after the party ditched Boris Johnson and then Liz Truss in quick succession last year.
Nearly two million Britons will end up paying more on their home loans “because his party used their money as a casino chip”, Starmer told Sunak, referring to Truss’s disastrous tenure, when financial markets tanked.
In national polls, Labour has built a double-digit lead over the Conservatives, and is treating the municipal elections as a referendum on Tory rule.
Sunak tried to recast the elections – for more than 8,000 council seats across 230 English districts – back on to local issues.
In contrast to Labour’s “broken promises”, Sunak said, “we’re getting on with delivering what we say with lower council tax, lower crime and fewer potholes” on roads.
He also defended a change introduced by his government for these elections that requires voters to show photo identification for the first time, a move denounced by Labour as an attempt to suppress the vote.
Surveys suggest that voters are deeply worried about double-digit inflation and the crisis engulfing the NHS, as doctors and nurses strike for better pay.
Labour is making progress towards recapturing its former strongholds in northern England, which Johnson turned Tory in the 2019 general election on a vow to “get Brexit done”.
London is not voting this time, but the centrist Liberal Democrats are targeting Conservative districts on the edge of the capital, including in UK parliamentary constituencies represented by members of Sunak’s cabinet.
Overall, the worst-case scenario given by pollsters is for the Conservatives to lose 1,000 council seats across the areas of England that are voting on Thursday.
Sunak’s party argues that anything less than 1,000 would amount to a win, and both Labour and the Liberal Democrats are also managing expectations for their likely successes.
The prime minister warned MPs on Wednesday that his party was in for a “hard night”, but added that “I do believe we’re making good progress,” according to the Daily Telegraph.
Local elections in Britain tend to have low turnout, and public uncertainty about the new voter ID requirement could depress it further.
Results will take shape only over the course of Friday (5) and in the succeeding days – as the country celebrates Saturday’s (6) coronation of King Charles III.
But voters assembled in one pre-election focus group had a damning verdict already on the Conservatives, even if Sunak tends to poll better personally.
Asked by the thinktank More in Common to describe the state of Britain in one word, the focus group’s answers included “broken”, “shambles”, “mess”, “struggling” and “crisis”.