LONDON – British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives were facing a bleak set of local election results on Friday with voters punishing his party after a year of political scandals, surging inflation and stagnant economic growth.
While governing parties often struggle at mid-term elections, the council results in England will be the largest, and possibly last, test of voter sentiment before the next general election which is expected to be held next year.
Counting has only taken place in about a quarter of the 8,000 council seats in local government authorities, which have responsibility for the day-to-day provision of public services such as bin collections and schools.
The early results, which do not affect the government’s majority in parliament, showed the Conservatives suffering a net loss of 218 seats while the main opposition Labour Party added 118 seats and the Liberal Democrats gained 57.
Labour said in a statement, according to Reuters, that based on these local election results it was on track to win the next general election with an eight-point lead over the Conservatives.
Sunak’s party suffered losses to Labour in key target seats in the north and southern England, while the Liberal Democrats were advancing in wealthier parts of the south.
The prime minister told reporters the results so far showed that people wanted his ruling party to deliver on their priorities, but that it was still too early in the process of announcing results to draw firm conclusions.
John Curtice, Britain’s best-known pollster, said based on the results so far, the Conservatives were in “considerable electoral trouble” and could face a net loss of about 1,000 seats, which would be in line with the party’s most pessimistic forecast.
A full picture of the state of the parties will not become clear until later on Friday when most of the councils will announce their results.
Sunak has tried to restore the credibility of the Conservatives since he was made prime minister in October following months of economic chaos and strikes.
The Conservatives changed prime ministers three times in the past year after Boris Johnson was ousted partly over parties held in government buildings during COVID-19 lockdowns, and Liz Truss was brought down following a gamble on tax cuts that shattered Britain’s reputation for financial stability.
Labour was making gains in some areas that backed leaving the European Union in the 2016 Brexit referendum which the party will need to win over if it wants to achieve a majority at the next general election.
In early hours of Friday morning, Labour won control of Plymouth, Stoke-on-Trent and Medway councils, three key battleground areas regarded as important to the party’s hopes of winning the next general election.
Sunak’s party lost control of at least eight councils.
Johnny Mercer, a member of parliament for Plymouth, said it had been a “terrible” night for the Conservatives.
The last time most of these local election seats were contested was in 2019 when the Conservatives lost more than 1,300 seats which had been expected to help limit the losses in these elections.
Gavin Barwell, a former Conservative minister and a member of the upper House of Lords, said the results reflected the political and economic chaos of the last year.
Sunak is “improving the situation, but he started miles behind and he’s got a hell of a job to do to try and close the gap,” he told the BBC.