Rishi Sunak 'up for the fight' of a general election despite miserable local results, minister says

Transport Secretary Mark Harper has insisted Rishi Sunak and the Conservatives are "up for the fight" of a general election, despite their terrible results in this week's local contests.

The party lost 474 councillors across the country after Thursday's vote, as well as high-profile mayoral races - seeing the West Midlands mayor Andy Street booted out by Labour in a tightly fought contest.

Yet Mr Harper insisted the best response for the Tories was to support the prime minister and prepare for the general election, which is expected later this year.

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Talking to Sky News' Sunday Morning With Trevor Phillips, the minister said: "It is always incredibly disappointing when you lose hardworking councillors, police and crime commissioners and fantastic mayors like Andy Street… it was a testament to him that that result was so close… so I can understand people being disappointed by that.

"But I think the key thing that people need to do now is get behind the prime minister, focus on the things the government is focused on delivering - the British people's priorities around the economy, dealing with migration - and get out there and take that fight to the country ahead of the general election."

Pointing to analysis by Sky News' election expert Professor Michael Thrasher, which showed Labour was on course to be the largest party after the general election, but not have an overall majority, Mr Harper said his rivals hadn't "sealed the deal with the public - so that means there is a fight to be had".

He added: "The prime minister is up for that fight, I am up for that fight and I know the Conservative Party is up for it.

"We have to focus on delivering on people's priorities - that's what the prime minister is doing - and then we have to get out there and sell that message and set out what we would do after the election with a Conservative victory."

Some had thought a poor set of local election results could see an internal uprising against Mr Sunak and the possibility of a leadership challenge ahead of the next election.

But former Tory minister Dame Andrea Jenkyns - who has already written a letter of no confidence in the prime minister - told Sky News there was no momentum in the party to oust their leader again.

"No MPs are not putting the letters in, and it is not going anywhere," she told Trevor Phillips. "I've tried, as you know. So I think now we've got to take the fight to Labour."

However, she did appeal to Mr Sunak to bring Boris Johnson back to the "frontline of politics" and a return to "real common sense Conservatism" in order to win back voters.

Asked about outgoing Conservative mayor Mr Street's appeal to the party not to "drift" to the right, Dame Andrea called him a "leftie" and pointed to the party's one success story out of the local elections - Lord Ben Houchen retaining his seat as Tees Valley mayor.

"[Lord Houchen] made the most of the opportunities of Brexit and he is a plain-speaking Northerner and he won," she said. "So it's rubbish saying we've got to go to the centre of politics. I mean, [Mr Street] lost his seat. It's rubbish."

Another former minister and outspoken critic of the prime minister, Suella Braverman, urged Mr Sunak to "change course" and "with humility, reflect on what voters are telling us, and change the plan and the way that he is communicating and leading us".

However, the ex-home secretary said it wasn't "a feasible prospect" to change the leader himself, telling the BBC: "We don't have enough time and it is impossible for anyone new to come and change our fortunes to be honest.

"There is no superman or superwoman out there who can do it."

Asked by Trevor Phillips if it was time to "put everyone out of their misery" and call a general election, Mr Harper said: "Well no, look, the prime minister has said right from the beginning of this year that his working assumption was that the election would be in the second half of this year - that remains the case.

"It is for this reason… he is focused on the British people's priorities and about delivering lower inflation, stopping the boats and focusing on getting NHS waiting lists down."

But the Liberal Democrats accused the Tories of being in "complete denial" after their poor performance this week.

"Mark Harper's claim that their 'plan' is working shows the Conservatives are living in cloud cuckoo land," said the party's deputy leader Daisy Cooper.

"Rishi Sunak needs to stop running scared of the British people and call a general election. Every day he clings on to power just does more damage to the NHS and people's living standards."

Meanwhile, Labour is celebrating gains of 185 seats in the local elections and winning mayoral races in a number of areas, including London, Manchester and that nail-biting contest in the West Midlands - won by just 1,508 votes.

"That was beyond our expectations and was a really fantastic result," said Labour's Pat McFadden.

"There is a mood for change in the country and I think these results have given us confidence and belief.

"But, of course, a general election is a different thing, not a vote has been cast in it, and I will be the first to say to the party, enjoy this moment, but we have still got a lot of work to do."

Read more:
The winners and losers
Charts tell story of Conservative collapse

Analysis: Labour's future success is less clear-cut

Something the party may have to address is losses in areas with high Muslim populations, thought to be over Labour's position on the conflict in Gaza.

Mr McFadden accepted it had "been an issue in some areas… and we understand why people have strong feelings on this".

He added: "Where voters are feeling strongly about that, we want to win their support back. And on this issue itself, it is really important to get more aid and more help to the people in Gaza, because the humanitarian circumstances there - it is an absolutely terrible situation.

"And when it comes to the general election itself, if we are trusted to govern, a better future for the Palestinians... will be a priority for a Labour government."