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Keep calamity and carry on

Rishi Sunak looks safe despite new humiliation.. but only because his rivals want him to own a general election defeat

Rishi Sunak is safe until the general election, but the local election results were catastrophic for his party. Photo: Omar Marques/Getty

If Rishi Sunak is for some reason feeling optimistic, he could spin last weekend’s events in quite a cheerful way: he saw off the plotters against him not once, but twice over.

By Friday evening, a consensus seemed to be forming – at least in the right wing media – that the local elections had been surprisingly good for the government. 

Labour were being challenged by the Greens, the Tories had held the Tees Valley mayoralty, and at that point they expected to hold the West Midlands, too. And the rumour mill was frenetic that the Tories might even beat Sadiq Khan. As a result, the newspapers splashed on Saturday with news that the plots were off, and Sunak was secure until the election.

Just 24 hours later, the plots were off again, but for another reason – the Conservatives’ results were just so bad that no one thought it made any sense to bring in another leader before a general election, only to taint them with the awfulness of the likely result. Sunak could stay in office just to own whatever happens next.

One weekend and two different reasons for your opponents to decide it’s better that you stay in office. What more could a prime minister want? If nothing else, the mess shows the difficulties even for professional politicians to work out what happens in local elections, why, and what comes next – especially as everyone seems to disagree.

So, having started with the fact that the local elections mean Rishi Sunak is unlikely to face an internal challenge before a general election, what else have we learned?

These results do not in any way suggest a hung parliament

Thanks to psephologists presenting extra calculations to the public “just for fun”, Rishi Sunak was able to claim that the results showed Britain was heading for another hung parliament and a Labour-led “coalition of chaos”. This notion is both ludicrous and counter-productive.

Both Sky and the BBC’s academic teams produce a metric (“national equivalent vote” and “projected national vote share” respectively) that allows local elections to be compared with one another – useful because a different mix of contests takes place pretty much every time. But that’s all the measure is good for.

What inevitably happens, of course, is people see those vote shares – and the seven- or nine- point gaps between Labour and the Tories therein – and notice that it’s much smaller than the gap in the national polls.

Sunak’s suggestion that Labour is going to fall short of an overall majority is actually helpful for Keir Starmer – whose enemy is complacency, and overconfident Labour voters either not turning out at the general election or lending their votes to another party to make a point.

But it is also a total misreading of the locals, not least because…

The results were catastrophic for the Conservatives

Nothing about the results suggests the governing party is doing better than polls or by-elections suggested. Eleven of the 12 UK metro mayoralties are now held by Labour. Ben Houchen held on, but if the swing against him is repeated, every Tory MP in his area will lose their seat. The Tories lost half of the seats they were defending.

In London, despite changing the electoral system to favour themselves – and somehow convincing themselves the campaign was close – Khan easily extended his majority versus the 2021 race, which had been seen as disastrously badly run at the time. 

Wherever the Conservatives look for a silver lining, they just find more of their party infrastructure torn to shreds – not least because every councillor lost is one fewer person dragging their friends and family along to leaflet at a general election. 

This is not “mid-term”. It is at most seven months until an election, and the results were as bad as they could possibly be. Just as nobody vies to get hold of a grenade without its pin, no one in his party wants to take Sunak’s place in No 10 just yet. They know what’s about to happen.

Labour’s threat from “the left” is real, but small

Labour faced two questions from these locals – what effect might a strong performance by the Greens have, and would it lose enough Muslim voters over Gaza to damage its prospects at a general election?

The two questions overlap to a huge degree – many of the voters who left Labour over Gaza went to the Greens. So too did those who left Labour because they felt it had shifted too far to the right more generally (these voters, often not Muslim themselves, tend to care deeply about Gaza also). 

The interaction of these two groups is heightened by the fact that younger, left wing, urban voters tend to live in the same areas that have high Muslim populations. Just looking at the change in Labour’s vote share in so-called “Muslim areas” exaggerates the effect – because young non-Muslim urbanites have shifted their votes, too.

It’s clear Labour will lose votes to its left, but it looks likely to be a considerably smaller effect than Reform could have on the Tories, and also in seats where it is less likely to pose a problem. Both of these voting groups are concentrated in seats that tend to be very safe for Labour. Starmer is unlikely to look at these results and panic about his left flank.

Reform UK aren’t that popular

Reform UK stood in just 12% of the council seats contested in this month’s election – and won just two council seats in total. Its leader, Richard Tice, tried to spin this, noting that the party’s vote share in those seats roughly matched its national polling.

The problem here, of course, is that the small subset of wards in which Reform stood were its Brexity strongholds. To only match its national polling score there suggests its support is considerably smaller than they suggest – which should lead the Conservatives to worry more about losing votes to Labour than Reform.

But as the likes of Suella Braverman demand the party turns even further right, the chance of this sensible analysis being accepted is unlikely to be their actual course of action.

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