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Sunak told to show some vision as local polls leave Tories in a hole

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Rishi Sunak was told by Conservative MPs on Sunday to show some vision and start digging his party out of the “hole” it was in after a disastrous set of local election results.

Although Tory MPs do not expect the prime minister to face a leadership challenge, there was despair across the party and a growing belief that the Conservatives are heading towards a heavy general election defeat.

Mark Harper, transport secretary, insisted that Sunak’s plan was “working” and that the prime minister just needed more time, but many Tory MPs believe that would not be enough to save their seats.

Sunak was lying low on Sunday after the Conservatives suffered a battering at the polls in England and Wales, losing about half of the council seats they were defending, the Blackpool South by-election and a series of mayoral contests, including the flagship West Midlands.

Speaking on terms of anonymity a string of Tory MPs told the Financial Times that Sunak must give people a broader vision of why Britain needed another five years of Conservative rule.

One senior MP said: “Rishi is safe. But one of the biggest problems we face is we have no vision, no call to arms to voters as to why they should vote Conservative.”

A former minister who supports Sunak said: “We need to stop these insane plots and get on with delivering. But Rishi does need a vision of what the next five years looks like.”

A former cabinet minister and backer of Boris Johnson said of Sunak: “We need a Conservative vision from him.”

Sunak will have a major task to galvanise his party when MPs on Tuesday return to Westminster from the bank holiday break after the morale-sapping set of results, which played out over Friday and Saturday.

The defeat by Labour of Andy Street, the popular Tory mayor of West Midlands, by a very tight margin has caused psychological damage to the party, with one Conservative MP calling it “an inflection point”.

Downing Street began a damage limitation exercise on Sunday, highlighting an analysis by local government elections expert Michael Thrasher which suggested that the local elections — if projected nationally — gave Labour only a seven-point lead over the Conservatives.

Thrasher told Sky News that Labour — on 34 points compared with the Tory projection of 27 — needed to have a much bigger lead to be sure of winning a majority at the next general election.

Harper seized on Thrasher’s work telling Sky’s Trevor Phillips: “Keir Starmer is not on course to win a majority. And that’s before an election campaign where Labour’s lack of policy would come under scrutiny. So what that shows for me is very clear. The polls are not correct.”

But other election experts were scornful of the projection of Thursday’s polls on to a future general election result, pointing out that people vote very differently in local contests, especially backing smaller parties.

They said that in a general election there would be more anti-Tory tactical voting, Reform UK would field more candidates and steal Conservative votes, and that Labour’s vote was now “efficiently” spread across the country.

“The purpose of ‘national equivalent vote’ projections is to look at what would have happened had there been local elections everywhere,” said Anthony Wells of YouGov. “The purpose is not to project a general election.”

Downing Street has seized on Thrasher’s work to claim that Starmer could only govern as head of a coalition, possibly including the Scottish National party and Liberal Democrats. However, the latest YouGov voting intention poll has the Conservatives on 18 per cent and Labour on 44 per cent.

Harper insisted that Sunak would not change tack in response to the local elections and would carry on delivering on the economy and would seek to stop small boats crossing the Channel and cut NHS waiting lists.

“The plan is about delivering, the plan is working,” Harper said, adding that Sunak just needed more time for the fruits to become visible. Most Tory MPs now expect a general election to be held in the autumn.

Rebel Conservatives admit that the chance of removing Sunak before the election has passed and are now allowing the prime minister to “own” the situation and what they regard as a certain election defeat.

“The hole to dig us out is the PM’s,” Suella Braverman, former home secretary, wrote in the Sunday Telegraph. “It’s time for him to start shovelling.”

Pat McFadden, Labour’s campaign co-ordinator, said his party had secured a “tremendous set of results” but admitted that it had work to do to “rebuild trust” with Muslim voters angry with Starmer’s position on the Gaza conflict.

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