England’s Local Elections Test Rishi Sunak’s Popularity

Britain’s Conservative Party suffered sweeping losses on Friday in local elections, a stinging rejection of the status quo that raises doubts about its ability to hold onto power after 14 years.

The vote for control over hundreds of municipalities, which took place on Thursday across England, was the biggest test of the governing party’s popularity before a general election that is likely to take place in the fall of 2024.

It left Prime Minister Rishi Sunak wounded, fracturing the pro-Brexit coalition assembled by one of his predecessors, Boris Johnson, in 2019 and opening a plausible path to power for the main opposition Labour Party.

With most of the results declared, the Conservatives lost more than 1,000 seats, while Labour gained roughly 500 and the centrist Liberal Democrats, which surprised oddsmakers as perhaps the best performer, picked up around 400. Another smaller party, the Greens, also made more than 200 gains.

Conservative leaders had warned that the anti-incumbent mood would make steep losses inevitable. They drew solace from the fact that, extrapolating the results to a national election, Labour has a 9 percent lead over the Conservatives — slightly short of what analysts say it needs to win a clear majority in Parliament.

Still, behind the posturing and number crunching, there was a grim political reality: the Conservatives are on their heels, facing a restive, angry electorate and hobbled by surging inflation, a stagnating economy, persistent labor unrest and a crisis in Britain’s National Health Service.

“It really does look like the Conservatives are going backward everywhere, but losing to different parties in different parts of the country,” said Robert Ford, professor of political science at the University of Manchester.

The Labour Party is clawing back voters in Brexit-supporting regions in the north and middle of England, many of whom switched to the Conservatives in the last general election when Mr. Johnson led them to a resounding majority.

The Liberal Democrats, for their part, are successfully wooing more affluent, educated voters in the Conservative heartlands in the south and southwest.

“The Conservatives are caught in this pincer,” said Tony Travers, a professor of politics at the London School of Economics. “It’s not a sure Labour majority, but Conservative M. P.s will see these results as bleak,” he said referring to members of Parliament.

Mr. Sunak’s technocratic leadership had steadied his party’s nerves after a series of scandals last year forced Mr. Johnson to resign, and economic turmoil then upended his successor, Liz Truss, who quit after just 44 days in Downing Street.

In recent weeks, the Conservative Party’s position in the polls improved after some political successes for Mr. Sunak, including a deal with the European Union over post-Brexit trade rules in Northern Ireland. But his party is still trailing Labour by double digits, with little sign of improved economic fortunes.

At stake in this election were about 8,000 seats for representatives in more than 200 municipalities that control local services like garbage collection and construction permitting, and a handful of mayoral positions. Scotland, Wales and some parts of England did not hold elections.

There were clear signs of trouble for the Tories from early Friday morning. Labour seized control of two municipalities previously held by Conservatives: Plymouth on the southwestern coast, and Medway, east of London.

Significantly, Labour also won in Stoke-on-Trent, in the middle of the country, and was victorious in a mayoral contest in Middlesbrough in the northeast — both in regions known as the “red wall.”

Voters in these deindustrialized areas were drawn by Mr. Johnson’s upbeat message and promise to “Get Brexit done” in 2019, and Labour is fighting to regain them, which would be a steppingstone to reclaiming power.

For now, at least, Mr. Johnson appears in no position to try to wrest back his old job. He is embroiled in an inquiry into whether he lied to Parliament about lockdown-breaching parties in Downing Street.

But if a leadership crisis is unlikely, the results could prompt internal sniping against Mr. Sunak, including renewed demands for tax cuts.

On Friday, John Redwood, a right-wing Conservative lawmaker, wrote on Twitter that many of the party’s former voters “stayed at home in protest at high taxes, lack of control of our borders, and too much local and national government interference in their lives.”

While it was a bad day for the Conservatives, the results did not put Labour on course to win a clear majority. That was a reminder that, although Labour’s leader, Keir Starmer, has made progress, he has done so without exciting voters.

The leader of the Liberal Democrats, Ed Davey, told the BBC that his party’s performance had exceeded all expectations. A Liberal Democratic resurgence would deepen the woes of the Conservatives without necessarily ensuring a Labour victory.

Ms. Sunak is hoping to secure what would be a fifth successive victory for the Conservatives in the general election, the exact timing of which he can choose but which must take place by January 2025.

But to prevail he will need to retain the loyalty of many of the voters who helped Mr. Johnson achieve a landslide victory in December 2019. He won over many voters in the “red wall,” while Conservative heartlands in the south of England, sometimes referred to as the “blue wall,” remained loyal partly out of hostility to the left-wing politics of Labour’s former leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

Since then, support for the Conservatives — and for Brexit — has slumped, and Labour has shifted to the center ground under Mr. Corbyn’s successor, Mr. Starmer.

Analysts warned that the vote was not a perfect barometer of national sentiment because turnout was far lower than in a general election, and parochial issues like planned housing developments swayed some races.

For the Conservatives, even the attempt to manage expectations seemed to backfire. Greg Hands, the party’s chairman, said that losses of around 1,000 seats were likely, opting for a high number, only to find the total creeping over that level by Friday evening.

“In comparative terms,” Professor Ford said, “this would be one of the weakest positions for an incumbent government has been in with 18 months to go to a general election.”

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