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Sunak’s instincts are leading the Tories to ever worse defeat

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Although there are still high-profile mayoral races yet to declare in London and the West Midlands which could give the Conservatives something to cheer about, the plain truth is that the local election results are an unmitigated disaster for the party.

It is a measure of how inept the plot to remove Rishi Sunak as Tory leader is that the would-be plotters have allowed the prime minister to mark his own homework by making the outcomes of the Tees Valley and West Midlands mayoral races “key tests” of his leadership’s viability.

What the mayoral contests really show is that when the Tories can make elections a referendum on the mayoral record of Ben Houchen or Andy Street, or the deficiencies of Sadiq Khan, they do better than when voters are asked to make a straightforward choice between Labour and the Conservatives. As a result, the Tories are losing councillors at a clip and have been defeated in all three of the “open” mayoral races.

As far as what these polls tells us about the general election, there is a simple answer: it will not be about what voters think of Street, Houchen or Khan. It will be about what people think about the Conservative party’s platform and record, and their willingness to countenance voting for Sir Keir Starmer and Labour as the alternative. All the evidence we have suggests that they will choose to do the latter in large numbers.

More troublingly still for the Conservatives, these election results — which are worse even than last year’s defeats — come just as the prime minister’s allies were trumpeting a good week for their man.

Sunak chose the ground on which to fight this campaign. He chose to make the Tories’ closing argument the news that the government had handed a failed asylum seeker from Africa £3,000 to voluntarily move to Rwanda to start a new life there. He opted to focus on further cuts to disability benefits — many of which go to people who are already in work — and on his party’s nebulous ambitions to squeeze public spending in order to finance the abolition of national insurance.

How could it be otherwise? In the winter of 2019, Boris Johnson showed how the Conservatives could win large majorities in the post-Brexit era. Promises of increased public spending were paired with tough messages on crime and control over immigration. Plans to “get Brexit done” were matched with a commitment to reach the UK’s net zero target and to spend big on infrastructure projects.

In the autumn of last year, Sunak opted to slow down the UK’s march to net zero; in the most recent Budget, Jeremy Hunt chose to cut taxes and plan to reduce spending; the country’s prisons are near capacity and Sunak’s strategy on immigration is to tell liberals that the UK’s border regime is cruel and conservatives that it is incontinent.

Unsurprisingly, he has led his party to a worse election result than in 2023. If Sunak follows his instincts any further, he will lead them to still worse defeat at the general election that must take place no later than January 2025.

And even if the prime minister now ends his disastrous experiment and returns to the ground he vacated in the autumn of 2023, these elections showed that while Nigel Farage’s Reform UK is not doing as well as the polls suggest, it is still doing well enough to cause serious damage to Tory prospects.

There is a small, but non-negligible, risk that the next general election is not just a 1997-style defeat for the Tories, but a disaster on the scale of that which befell the Canadian Conservatives in 1993, when they were reduced from being the governing party to a parliamentary rump of just two MPs. Sunak’s chosen battleground this time around turned out to be a killing field for Conservative councillors. The rest of the party should beware.

stephen.bush@ft.com

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