Labour makes big inroads into Tory territory but more hard work awaits

Sir Keir Starmer strode into Labour’s headquarters in London’s South Bank on Friday, basking in applause from staffers after the party’s local election victories. “Doesn’t it feel good to win?” he beamed.

When it comes to general elections, some in the room would have had no idea: Labour last won power in a national contest in 2005, when some party apparatchiks were still at primary school.

As the dust settled on a dramatic set of English council results, two big questions hung in the air: is the Labour leader now on course for Downing Street after local victories stretching from Middlesbrough to Plymouth?

And will the results deal a serious blow to Rishi Sunak’s attempt to restore the Conservative party’s fortunes, sparking a new round of factional infighting and fraught policy debates on issues such as tax and housing?

Starmer’s allies have been greatly reassured by Labour’s success in securing a more “efficient” distribution of the party’s vote, which has previously piled up in safe parliamentary seats in London, Manchester and other big cities.

The fact that Labour seized control of councils in southern England such as Medway in Kent and Swindon on the M4 corridor was a sign of progress in areas that voted heavily for Tony Blair’s “new” Labour in 1997.

Wins in “red wall” areas in northern England such as Stoke-on-Trent, High Peak and Blackpool were evidence that Starmer was also cutting through in former Leave supporting seats conquered by Boris Johnson at the 2019 general election. Indeed, Labour’s strongest performances were in working class, former Brexit strongholds.

But Starmer needs a seismic electoral shock at a general election — on a scale of Clement Attlee’s win in 1945 or Blair’s in 1997 — next year to even gain a House of Commons majority of one.

The BBC’s “projected national share” of the vote — based on the local election results — gave Labour 35 per cent and the Tories 26 per cent, the biggest such Labour lead since 1997.

But Tory officials pointed out that Blair in 1996 and the Conservative leader David Cameron in 2009 had much better local council results before national polls a year later.

Labour has 196 MPs but needs 326 seats for an overall Commons majority. On the basis of Friday’s results, that remains a tall order. “We all know there’s no place for letting up,” Starmer told Labour staffers. “Let’s never mistake confidence for complacency.”

A Labour revival in Scotland at the expense of a crisis-hit Scottish National party would help Starmer, but he might yet need the Liberal Democrats to smash down parts of the Tory “blue wall” in the south to help him over the Downing Street threshold.

A hung parliament, with Starmer the leader of the largest party, is a clear possibility based on the local council results. But such polls, with their low turnouts, are not always a good guide to future national elections.

Lord Peter Mandelson, an architect of Blair’s first election victory, agreed that the mood was “not yet 1997” but said he believed the country was ready for change.

“I think the Tories have been punting Sunak as a ‘clean skin’, someone the voters can look at afresh, forget the Tories’ record and get things done,” he added. “There is no evidence that voters are swallowing this.”

For Sunak, the council results were a searing reminder of the task facing him if he is to secure a fifth consecutive Conservative general election victory and the scale of the damage to the party’s brand done by Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.

“This was completely predictable,” said one cabinet minister. “In six months you can’t put right the embarrassments of the 18 months before the prime minister took office.”

Sunak is facing criticism from the Tory right for failing to proceed with an agenda of tax cuts and planning reforms of the kind that Truss tried and failed to deliver. That criticism will now intensify and some Conservative MPs would like to see Johnson return to Number 10.

However, Sunak is not facing any serious threat to his leadership: polls suggest he is more popular than his party, running neck-and-neck in some surveys with Starmer on the question of who would be the best prime minister.

But the results do raise questions about the future direction of his government, with Tory MPs suggesting the prime minister will be urged to shift rightward to rebuild public support.

The fallout will test his ability to hold together the fissiparous Conservative coalition, with southern Tory MPs wanting lower taxes and fewer houses and their northern counterparts demanding higher public spending and more homes.

One backbench Conservative MP said the “difficult, disappointing” results meant “a lot of colleagues will be worried about their seats” at the general election, and would embolden critics of Sunak to speak up.

The MP drew attention to an international conference involving rightwing politicians in London later this month, at which leading Tory figures including home secretary Suella Braverman and former ministers Jacob Rees-Mogg and Lord David Frost are keynote speakers.

“It is quite important,” said the MP. “What it shows is that there’s a lot of energy in that part of the right. There’s always been the libertarian right and then a social conservative right. The latter is going to grow in strength and noise.”

In a sign that the battle for the soul of the party could become rancorous, the moderate former Conservative minister Tobias Ellwood insisted a rightward lurch would be “political suicide” for the Tories, saying: “We are already seeing murmurings from the right of the party seeking to exploit the poor results, hoping to rekindle their agenda.”

Johnson’s name was invoked longingly in some quarters. David Campbell Bannerman, a former Conservative MEP, said the party should be making gains rather than losses in the local elections.

“You can turn things around with the right leadership and right policy offering and Rishi hasn’t done it,” he added. Deriding Sunak as “robotic, a John Major 2”, he called for Johnson’s return to the helm.

Campbell Bannerman is chair of the Conservative Democratic Organisation, a group set up after Johnson was ousted from Downing Street and led by his allies.

On Friday Tory recriminations were also directed at frontline politicians seen to have made unhelpful interventions that gifted soundbites to headline writers, including veterans’ affairs minister Johnny Mercer, who declared the local election results “terrible” for the Conservatives.

But one Tory official said the party had simply fought a lousy campaign, with Sunak and other cabinet ministers virtually invisible. “Labour people just seem hungrier. I think we’ve got used to winning,” they added.

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