This is a public service warning for Conservatives. Voters do not regard a rudimentary ability to govern as a bonus feature for those seeking to run the country.
For the past three months, Tories have been allowing themselves to believe that under Rishi Sunak the mere restoration of floor-level competence and political sanity would be enough to reverse the electoral tide. These elections present a timely dose of reality for those who were getting dizzy with the novelty of a capable prime minister.
Few hotels would welcome TripAdvisor reviews headed “Not as bad as it used to be”. Yet too many Conservatives have allowed themselves to believe that “not quite the shambles we were” was somehow a sufficient political offering. A close Sunak ally even worried this week about the need to guard “against complacency”. Well, good news guys, Thursday’s local elections have got you covered on that.
The results were at the worst end of expectations for the Conservatives. It is extremely hard to see how, on this basis, they would be able to form even a minority government. They suggest that Sunak is still to separate himself from all that has gone before. His hands may be clean on the Truss interregnum, but he was a central figure in the Johnson years.
And while the mood among Conservatives in Westminster has perked up, the real concerns in the country on issues ranging from the cost of living to the raft of public service strikes, to NHS waiting lists and illegal immigration, are not abating. People feel poorer and less well served on the things that will decide the next election.
A further cause for concern is that the success of the Liberal Democrats points to the increase in an anti-Tory tactical vote. Labour is making clear inroads in Leave-supporting seats, including in the “red wall” northern and Midlands areas it lost in the past two general elections; the Lib Dems are eating into Tory majorities in more affluent southern seats where the party is the primary challenger (though Labour has also gained in the south).
Oppositions have rightly learnt not to build their hopes on local election victories. There are innumerable major caveats about extrapolating from council contests. But they do set the music for national politics and the melody suggests Sir Keir Starmer is heading for Downing Street.
That’s the good news for Labour. What is far less clear is that it would be a majority Labour government. National vote-share projections from the results give Labour a 9 per cent lead, which might mean a narrow majority but more probably suggests a hung parliament, with it as the largest party and Starmer as premier in some arrangement with the Lib Dems (and maybe others).
Much can still change, of course. Governments tend to recapture some lost voters. Similarly, Labour faces more relentless focus as the election nears.
Polls show that while Starmer has succeeded in reassuring voters, he has yet to generate significant enthusiasm and is relying heavily on anger at the Tories. He has removed fear but has yet to instil hope. Labour strategists know he needs to go further in spelling out the change he would offer, not least on public services.
For Sunak, the results present a larger challenge. The scale of lost council seats means the prime minister’s narrative of success in arresting the decline has become harder to sell.
For all the noises off from the dwindling and faintly ridiculous band of Johnson loyalists, there is no serious prospect of a challenge to Sunak’s leadership. But the demands for policy shifts he had managed to quell will pick up again. The most obvious issue will be demands for earlier action to cut taxes.
His message, one he rehearsed this week in a speech to the Tory think-tank Onward, is that it is a long fight and that voters would “make us sweat” till the end. That speech also tried to draw a line between himself and the “box-set dramas” of previous Tory administrations, including the one in which he was a key figure. Conservatives have previously found success in using a change of leadership to project a change of government. But these results suggest Sunak has much more work to do.
While Labour is still vague about the change it offers, its messages that Britain is not working and that people do not feel better off align with the feelings of voters. Sunak needs to give people concrete reasons to believe he can grow the economy and improve public services. This means delivery they feel in their own lives.
Clearing up the messes left by previous Tory administrations is an essential first step. But it is a precondition, not a path, to success. After some heady weeks, Conservatives have been rudely reminded of the scale of the challenge they face.
This article has been updated to reflect the ongoing results