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Countdown to go/no-go

By Perry Miller
12 March 2024
Public Affairs
local elections
local government

Two weeks today is make or break day for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. The 26th of March is the last opportunity for him to call a general election on the 2nd of May, which is when local elections take place across the country.

Prevailing wisdom is that he’ll try and hold out until the autumn, and that is still the bookies’ favourite: walk into Ladbrokes today and you’d likely get odds of 1/3 on a date between October and December, while April to June currently sits at 5/1. I’m not a gambler, but I reckon the May date is now worth a flutter.

The day after Lee Anderson nailed his colours to Reform UK’s mast and declared ‘I want my country back’ (the next stage on a political saga that started with Labour and will now likely see him sitting next to George Galloway in the House of Commons) may seem an obvious time to suggest this. And there’s no doubt that, on the surface at least, this looks like a huge coup for the Reform Party to have its first sitting MP while also polling at up to 13%. More likely, however, is that Sunak will be glad to see the back of an outspoken troublemaker whose increasingly toxic outpourings did not sit well with a government shortly to present its new counter-extremism strategy. Indeed, a recent YouGov poll found that the public dislike Anderson by 36% to 13%.

Far more worrying for Sunak, however, are the upcoming local elections. Most of the seats to be contested this year were last up for grabs in 2021, when Conservative fortunes were running high. Boosted by the Covid vaccine rollout, the Tories were at 42% in the polls back then, with predictions of a decade in power; now they average around 25% and have dropped as low as 18%.

In London, where the mayoralty and assembly are both up for re-election, Conservative support now sits at 20% with Labour on 55%. Sadiq Khan seems unlikely to face much trouble in his bid for re-election: even in outer London where we were told just eight months ago that the ULEZ rollout spelt big trouble for the mayor, he leads his Tory rival by 41% to 29%.

All of this does not bode well for Conservative fortunes on the 2nd of May: an article in this weekend’s Observer quoted a commentator suggesting that the Conservatives could lose ‘somewhere in the region of half their councillors and most of their remaining councils.’  That would definitely spook the horses, leaving morale in tatters just when the grass roots need to be mobilised for an autumn push.

It’s a scenario not impossible to imagine. Last week, the sole surviving Conservative administration in once true-blue Surrey lost its majority: Reigate & Banstead Council is now under no overall control after a single defection. And while all the county’s MPs remain Conservative, reports that the Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, donated £100,000 of his own money to his election campaign in Godalming and Ash, suggest that no one is taking anything for granted.

A dangerous time for Sunak then. Does he emerge battered from the inevitable drubbing in the local elections, pledging to ride it out, only to be confronted with a summer of small boats, defections to Reform and letters to the 1922 Committee?  Or does he gamble it all on a high-stakes contest on the 2nd of May, when he can guarantee to get the troops out, both on the doorstep and in the polling booth? 

‘Ladies and gentlemen: Faites vos jeux!’