Sunak Suffers Big Election Blow, But Not Enough to Force Him Out

(Bloomberg) -- Rishi Sunak’s ruling Conservative Party lost a bellwether parliamentary seat and was on track to shed hundreds of local councilors, a set of devastating election results that nonetheless fell short of a worst-case scenario that might have prompted a Tory bid to remove him.

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The Conservatives’ widespread losses to the Labour Party echoed a similar sweep of local councils a year ago and reaffirmed expectations that opposition leader Keir Starmer is on course to win a general election later this year. Notably, Labour easily regained the parliamentary constituency of Blackpool South — a seat in the “red wall” key to the Tories’ 2019 victory — as the populist Reform UK siphoned away votes on the party’s right.

“We’re certainly going to end up arguing that it’s one of the Conservatives’ worst performances in 40 years of following local elections, and it may end up being the worst,” John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, and elections expert, told Bloomberg Radio on Friday.

The results, however, fell short of the wipeout that Tories critical of Sunak thought might be enough to prompt a leadership challenge. People close to the plotters said that they were abandoning efforts on Friday, after Conservatives, including popular Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen, survived their own challenges.

That win is also testament to Houchen’s personal standing: he’s attracted investment and a freeport to the region, rescued the regional airport by taking it into public ownership and began to regenerate a shuttered steelworks. He also played down his Conservative affiliation during the campaign.

“We’ve tried to show a clear vision of what we want for our area,” Houchen said in his victory speech. “I’m not pretending that everything’s perfect, but we are making good progress.”

There were also signs of cracks in the broad coalition that Starmer must build to regain power for the first time in 14 year. Labour lost control of the council in the Manchester suburb of Oldham, an area with a large Muslim population that has seen local opposition to Starmer’s position on the war in Gaza.

Still, the results will do little to allay the sense of impending doom for the Conservatives at a general election that Sunak must hold within nine months. That’s especially after Reform UK — founded by Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage — almost edged them out of second place in Blackpool.

The Tories have trailed Labour by a margin that’s fluctuated around 20 points for months, and the local elections show that’s now translating into votes. Moreover, the 26% swing in Blackpool was the third-largest Tory-to-Labour shift since World War II. If replicated nationally at the general election, that would put Starmer on track to be prime minister, and likely with a large majority.

The full impact of the election won’t be known for days, with results in key mayoral races in London and the region sounding Birmingham due over the weekend. Sunak will hope the Tees Valley outcome is replicated on Saturday, when the result of the West Midlands mayoralty is expected announced.

Tory incumbent Andy Street is defending a much narrower margin of victory than Houchen, and has emphasized his independence, campaigning on “Brand Andy.” Tory and Labour officials also said the result of the London contest — in which Labour’s Sadiq Khan is expected to win a third term — could be closer than pre-vote polling suggested.

In the wider council elections, Labour had made some eye-catching gains by early Friday afternoon, including taking control of councils in Thurrock, Hartlepool and Rushmoor. The Tories had lost 233 council seats — more than half of the ones they were defending — with Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and independent candidates all making gains. Results are expected to keep coming through over the weekend.

Earlier in the day, Labour’s Chris Webb won 58.9% of ballots cast in Blackpool South, which will bolster Tory concerns that Starmer is rebuilding the “red wall” that Sunak’s predecessor, Boris Johnson, had seemingly torn down after Brexit. Reform’s third-place finish showed the upstart party could end up pulling votes from the Conservatives, amplifying Labour’s gains.

“This was indeed seismic and a stark reminder of just how bad public opinion is for the Conservative party is right now and how low their support is right across the country,” Patrick English, director of political analytics at YouGov, told Bloomberg radio. “It would suggest that the Conservatives are struggling, and it would suggest that Reform are a threat to the Conservatives and are eating into their vote and are causing them problems.”

--With assistance from Stephen Carroll.

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