Rishi Sunak on the shelf as Tory election losses mount

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Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives were on the rack on Friday after the party was defeated by Labor in the Blackpool South parliamentary by-election and faced huge losses in local elections in England and Wales.

Labor leader Sir Keir Starmer said his party’s victory in Blackpool, secured with a swing of 26 per cent, was “seismic”, while early results suggested the Conservatives could lose half the council seats they they defended.

Sunak’s leadership of the UK’s ruling party is expected to come under renewed pressure as Conservative MPs wake up to the electoral carnage, knowing they will soon face a general election due to be called this year.

The Prime Minister’s allies hope the Conservatives can retain key mayorships in Tees Valley, where the result will be known at lunchtime on Friday, and in the West Midlands, where the result will not be known until Saturday.

The figures were based on results from 35 of the 107 contested councils, while some voters in England and Wales also elected mayors, as well as police and crime commissioners.

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Sir John Curtice, the veteran elections expert, said the results were “not far from” catastrophic for the Conservatives and “one of the worst, if not the worst” result for the party in local elections in 40 years.

Starmer’s attention overnight was focused on Labour’s parliamentary by-election victory, where new MP Chris Webb beat the Conservatives’ David Jones by 26 per cent. Reform UK came a close third, just 117 votes behind the Conservatives.

“This seismic victory in Blackpool South is the most important result today,” Starmer said. “This is the only contest in which voters had the opportunity to send a message directly to Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives, and that message is an overwhelming vote for change.”

Labour’s victory in Blackpool South was its third biggest blow against the Conservatives in a post-war by-election and is ominous for Tory MPs defending similar working-class seats in the “red wall” of northern England.

Curtice told the BBC the 26 per cent swing was “not an isolated case” and was the fifth such by-election since 2019, where the swing was more than 20 percentage points.

Labor overturned a slim Conservative majority of 3,690 votes to take the parliamentary seat with a majority of 7,607. The position was previously held by Scott Benton, who was forced to resign in a lobbying scandal. Turnout was around 32 percent, down from 57 percent in the 2019 general election.

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Reform UK, formerly the Brexit party, won 17 per cent of the vote in Blackpool South, one of the contests it focused on, after fielding candidates for just 12 per cent of contested council seats.

The fact that Reform UK, founded by Nigel Farage, did not come second will be of little comfort to Conservative strategists, although its performance was another reminder of how it is dividing the vote on the right.

A Conservative spokesperson said: “This was always going to be a difficult election given the specific circumstances relating to the previous incumbent. “What has become clear is that a vote for reform is a vote for Sir Keir Starmer.”

It was not all good news for the Labor Party. The party lost control of Oldham council in Greater Manchester, after ceding several seats to independents espousing a pro-Palestinian platform. He also lost seats in Newcastle.

Pat McFadden, Labour’s electoral co-ordinator, admitted the Gaza war was costing the party votes. “There’s no denying that this is a factor in some parts of the country,” he said.

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The Conservatives also narrowly held power in Harlow, Essex, Con-Lab’s battleground. One Conservative figure claimed the result showed there was “absolutely no love for Keir Starmer”.

As counting continued, Labor had made net gains of 58 council seats by dawn against 96 Conservative losses. The Liberal Democrats and Greens also advanced with nine and 13 new seats respectively.

About a third of councils that held elections counted results overnight and published them in the early hours of Friday.

The first results of the mayoral election, for the East Midlands, North East, Tees Valley and York and North Yorkshire, will be announced around lunchtime on Friday, while results for London and the West Midlands will be announced on Saturday.

Sunak will use victory in one or both of the Tees Valley and West Midlands mayorships to try to reassure his restive party, but Downing Street is bracing for fresh criticism of his leadership in the coming hours.

Number 10 is on alert for the possibility of more Conservative MPs submitting letters of distrust towards its leadership; 52 would provoke a vote of confidence.

Conservative chairman Richard Holden insisted on Friday morning that Sunak was safe. “The prime minister will lead the party until the general election, there is no doubt about that,” he said.

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