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Sunak and Starmer go head to head in battle for local council seats

Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer go head to head on Thursday in a big test at the ballot box, as voters across much of England go to the polls with more than 8,000 seats on 230 local councils up for grabs.

The contest will be a barometer of public opinion ahead of an expected 2024 general election, and will set the political weather. The Conservatives and Labour are desperately trying to manage expectations.

The prime minister is braced for the Tories to suffer heavy losses, but the elections in England are a test of whether he has started to stabilise the party.

Sunak admitted on Wednesday night that the Tories would lose seats because of the “box-set drama” of the past year when the premierships of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss imploded.

He told an event organised by the think-tank Onward that voters would make the Conservatives “sweat” to earn back their trust, but said the party was starting to make progress.

For Starmer, one question is equally pressing: is Labour making gains — in the right places — to suggest he is leading the party back to power in 2024?

The Tories have most to lose — with 3,262 council seats to defend — and are fighting on two main fronts. Labour is attacking in northern England and the Midlands, while the Liberal Democrats are seeking gains in the south.

But the mood among Conservative MPs is surprisingly upbeat, considering the party’s bleak and almost certainly exaggerated claim that it is set to lose about 1,000 seats.

In the House of Commons on Wednesday it was Tory MPs who were clamouring for “more” after Sunak and Starmer held a pre-election joust at prime minister’s question time.

“It’s going to be very difficult, especially against the Liberals and independent candidates in the south,” said one Tory election strategist. “But, against Labour, our support might be holding up a bit better.”

Sir John Curtice, elections expert at Strathclyde University, has suggested the swing from Conservatives to Labour compared with the last time these seats were contested in 2019, based on national polls, could be 4-5 percentage points.

“That would certainly result in Conservative losses but probably fewer than the 1,000 net losses some party officials have suggested.”

Curtice said Labour should be aiming for a 10-point lead over the Tories on a “projected national share” of the vote, where the BBC calculates how the parties would have done across Britain if people everywhere behaved the same way as those who cast a local ballot.

Tory campaigners see glimmers of hope. “People aren’t slamming the door in our faces and we’re getting a hearing: that’s an improvement and it’s largely down to the prime minister,” said one.

By focusing on policy delivery and solid economic management, Sunak might have reduced the level of anger aimed at Conservative candidates following the Johnson and Truss premierships, but it is unlikely to be enough.

Tory parliamentary candidates in the run-up to the 1997 general election reported that voters were no longer angry with John Major’s administration. That was auspicious but misleading: they voted massively for Tony Blair’s “new” Labour.

National polls now show that while Sunak has narrowed the Tory deficit behind Labour since Truss’s government imploded last October, the opposition party’s advantage is still bigger than in the dying days of the Johnson administration.

MPs from all parties confirmed the mood among voters was grim. One shadow cabinet member said the country was “struggling and sullen” and admitted Labour needed to do more to offer hope.

Even Starmer’s supporters conceded the Labour leader had struggled to excite voters with his vision for the UK, even if he had reassured them he would be a competent leader.

“We have to be more of the ‘coming change’ as we were in 1997,” said the shadow cabinet member. “We have a lot of work to do. We need a clarity and edge to what we say and how we say it.”

Labour officials said they hoped their national poll lead, averaging about 16 points, would help it make net gains of 400 seats, although the Tories expect the main opposition party to do far better than that.

A key for Labour is whether the party is doing well in marginal parliamentary seats — particularly in so-called red wall towns in the North and the Midlands — where Starmer needs to make big gains at the next general election.

Shabana Mahmood, Labour’s campaign chief, has highlighted the problem of the party’s vote being “inefficiently” distributed: pointlessly piling up in solid seats in places such as Manchester and London.

Thursday’s contest is taking place across most of England but not in the capital.

The last time these seats were contested in 2019 both the Conservatives and Labour did badly under the failing leaderships of Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn respectively. The Lib Dems made 700 gains, helped by a pro-Remain Brexit backlash. Sir Ed Davey’s party hopes to make further inroads into Tory territory on Thursday.

Davey has been targeting safe Tory areas such as Windsor, Wokingham and Esher & Walton that have been dubbed the “blue wall”.

“Whilst people in the blue wall are naturally anxious about cost of living they are being driven by the NHS as their primary concern,” said one Lib Dem strategist.

Meanwhile, Independent candidates, capitalising on a “plague on all your houses” attitude, are expected to make gains against the main parties by fighting on local issues.

The elections will require voters to produce photo identification for the first time. Polls open at 7am on Thursday and results will start coming in early on Friday.

The fact that much of the media’s attention will shift to the coronation of King Charles III and Camilla, Queen Consort, on Saturday is likely to mean less national focus on the outcome than usual.

But party analysts will be poring over the results — and the geographical distribution of votes — for indications of the outcome of a general election widely expected to happen in spring or autumn next year.

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