LONDON: Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives are braced for heavy losses in their first major electoral test since he became the UK’s third leader in the space of a few chaotic weeks last year.
In the depths of the worst cost-of-living crisis in decades, the local council elections across England on Thursday will shed light on the main parties’ standing ahead of a UK-wide general election expected next year.
At the last parliamentary clash before the vote, opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer Wednesday pressed on Tory wounds after the party ditched Boris Johnson and then Liz Truss in quick succession last year.
Nearly two million Britons will end up paying more on their home loans “because his party used their money as a casino chip”, Starmer told Sunak, referring to Truss’s disastrous tenure, when financial markets tanked.
In national polls, Labour has built a double-digit lead over the Conservatives, and is treating the municipal elections as a referendum on Tory rule.
The prime minister tried to recast the elections – for more than 8,000 council seats across 230 English districts – back on to local issues.
In contrast to Labour’s “broken promises”, Sunak said, “we’re getting on with delivering what we say with lower council tax, lower crime and fewer (road) potholes”.
He also defended an innovation introduced by his government for these elections – requiring voters to show photo identification for the first time, in a move decried by Labour as an attempt to suppress the vote.
Surveys suggest that voters are deeply worried about double-digit inflation and the crisis engulfing Britain’s cherished National Health Service, as doctors and nurses strike for better pay.
Labour is making progress towards recapturing its former strongholds in northern England, which Johnson turned Tory in the 2019 general election on a vow to “get Brexit done”.
London is not voting this time but the centrist Liberal Democrats are targeting Conservative districts on the edge of the capital – including in UK parliamentary constituencies represented by members of Sunak’s cabinet.
Overall, the worst-case scenario given by pollsters is for the Conservatives to lose 1,000 council seats across the areas of England that are voting on Thursday.
Sunak’s party argues that anything less than 1,000 would amount to a win, and both Labour and the Liberal Democrats are also managing expectations for their likely successes.
Local elections in Britain tend to have low turnout – and public uncertainty about the new voter ID requirement could depress it further.
Results will only take shape over the course of Friday and in the succeeding days – as the country celebrates Saturday’s coronation of King Charles III.
But voters assembled in one pre-election focus group had a damning verdict already on the Conservatives, even if Sunak tends to poll better personally.
Asked by the think tank More in Common to describe the state of Britain in one word, the focus group’s answers included “broken”, “shambles”, “mess”, “struggling” and “crisis”.