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No let-up for Sunak

Public Affairs
general election
local elections

The mood in No. 10 is undeniably bleak as the upcoming local elections loom, with the electoral outlook appearing worse and worse for Rishi Sunak: recent polls put the Conservatives on 25% or worse, meaning losses of up to 500 seats – around half of their councillors facing election could be at risk.

Not for the first time, the local elections will play the “warm up” role for the national mood going into a likely general election this year. While there is widespread acceptance that the results will be punishing for the blue side, opinions within the party are split over any risk to Sunak’s position. One former cabinet minister said the threat to Sunak was being underestimated adding that “It’s clear the budget has had no traction at all at rallying support”. But even critics of Sunak admit there’s no rush to replace him with members and MPs seeming to have “given up”. 

Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) is unsurprisingly eager to separate council seat predictions from Rishi Sunak's popularity. They are likely to rely on polling data, albeit potentially skewed, which indicates that Rishi is more popular than the party brand. This will be used to argue externally that he will outperform the party's performance in the council elections. 

Internally, there is no doubt that Conservative members are bracing themselves for substantial losses for the third year in a row, in complete contrast to the last time this crop of seats were up for election in 2021.  

The aftermath of the local elections may serve as a litmus test for how serious Conservative MPs are inclined towards removing Sunak, or pressuring him to call for a summer election in order to mitigate losses. A confidence vote in Sunak’s leadership could be triggered among Conservative MPs if just 52 of them call for one, a threshold that seems achievable.  

While a summer election is not off the table in the wake of damaging local results, going in June would make it look like Sunak had cost hundreds of Tory councillors their seats to enjoy just one more month in power – political suicide. My betting is still that the election will be later rather than sooner, and this is of course what governments tend do when the polls look bleak.

Labour's most indicative gains may be in the regional mayoralties rather than locals, always difficult to read with seats up in thirds. Andy Street, the Conservative Mayor of the West Midlands, is currently trailing his Labour opponent by 14%. Labour victory here and against Ben Houchen in Tees Valley would provide a significant boost for a party looking to win back former heartlands at national level.