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UK: Rishi Sunak's party heading to big losses in local polls, prospects dim further in general election

The election results will be announced on Friday and Saturday, and are indicating that Sunak's Conservative Party is heading for its worst-ever defeat in the upcoming general election. Sunak's increased defence spending and the Rwanda deportation appear to have no effect on voters.

Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee London Published on: May 03, 2024 15:03 IST
Rishi Sunak, UK
Image Source : REUTERS UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak

London: In a major setback for British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, the Conservatives are heading towards heavy losses in an array of local election results announced on Friday, further raising the chances of the main opposition Labour Party to return to power after 14 years in the upcoming general elections. The Labour won control of councils in England it hadn't held for decades and was successful in a special by-election for Parliament.

The victory for the opposition in Thursday's elections raised more pressure on Sunak and set the tone for what will be a closely watched two days of local results before a national election this year, in which polls predict Labour leader Keir Starmer coming to power and defeat the Conservatives by its worst-ever margins to date. These local elections were one of the final tests for Sunak, who has been under pressure from his own party due to several issues, including a cost-of-living crisis.

Voters cast their ballots on Thursday for more than 2,000 seats on local authorities across England and a handful of high-profile mayoral elections, including in the capital, London. The Labour Party won back the Blackpool South seat in the northwest of England that went Conservative in the last general election in 2019, when then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson won a big victory. The parliamentary seat was up for grabs after the Conservative lawmaker there resigned following a lobbying scandal.

Labour candidate Chris Webb won the Blackpool election with 10,825 votes, while the Conservative candidate came in second with 3,218. The swing of 26 per cent to Labour from the 2019 result was the third biggest in post-war by-election history, according to polling expert John Curtice. The only negative for Labour has been in some areas with large Muslim populations, such as Oldham in northwest England, where the party's candidates appear to have suffered as a result of leader Keir Starmer's strongly pro-Israel stance in the conflict in Gaza.

Conservatives looking at worst-ever defeat

The defeat in Blackpool and early signs of deep losses at the council level will boost Labour's hopes for a sweeping victory over Sunak's Conservatives in the national election. “This seismic win in Blackpool South is the most important result today," Starmer said. “This is the one contest where voters had the chance to send a message to Rishi Sunak's Conservatives directly, and that message is an overwhelming vote for change."

As of Friday morning, with barely a quarter of the 2,661 seats up for grabs counted, the Conservatives were down 122 while Labour was up 52. Other parties, such as the centrist Liberal Democrats and the Green Party are also making gains. The Conservatives seized on Starmer's failure to win control of one southeastern council that it had targeted over Starmer's pro-Israel stance.

Labour has won in areas that voted heavily for Britain's departure from the European Union and where it was crushed by ex-PM Johnson, such as Hartlepool in the northeast of England, and Thurrock in southeast England. It also seized control of Rushmoor, a military-heavy council in the south of England which it has never won.

“We are probably looking at certainly one of the worst, if not the worst, Conservative performances in local government elections for the last 40 years," Curtice told BBC radio. As the results roll in on Saturday, Sunak hopes that he can point to successes, notably in several key mayoral races as the prospect looms of the Conservative Party changing its leader before the general election.

More pressure on Rishi Sunak

Sunak's Conservatives are about 20 percentage points behind Labour in most opinion polls for the national election, which he intends to call in the second half of the year. The British leader had hoped his announcement on increased defence spending and the passing of his divisive plan to send illegal asylum seekers to Rwanda might win over voters, but the losses could again fuel calls for him to step down.

Sunak's only hope is that Conservative mayors Andy Street and Ben Houchen win in the mayoral elections in Tees Valley in the northeast of England and in the West Midlands, which will earn him some respite from restive lawmakers in his party. Labour's Sadiq Khan is expected to remain mayor of London when results are announced on Saturday.

Sunak became prime minister in October 2022 after the short-lived tenure of his predecessor, Liz Truss, who left office after 49 days following a budget of unfunded tax cuts that roiled financial markets and sent borrowing costs for homeowners surging. The 43-year-old British PM has struggled to restore his party's sinking popularity despite recasting himself at various points over the past year as a bold reformer.

(with inputs from agencies)

ALSO READ | UK begins detaining migrants set to be deported to Rwanda, ignoring EU's human rights ruling




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