The Tories could be heading for a drubbing in the local elections
The local elections taking place in much of England outside London on Thursday will be Rishi Sunak’s first key electoral test.
Although the gap has narrowed somewhat in recent weeks, his party is still 15 points behind Labour in the polls. That deficit would seemingly indicate that the Conservatives are heading for a drubbing, and leave Conservative MPs wondering whether Mr Sunak can win a general election next year.
Yet in practice this test is not as tough for the prime minister as Labour’s opinion poll lead suggests. Mr Sunak has the good fortune that his party performed badly the last time the seats being contested this year were previously up for grabs. As a result, his party has much less to lose.
Ninety per cent of the council seats being filled on Thursday were last contested in May 2019. That now represents psephological pre-history. Theresa May was still prime minister, struggling – and ultimately failing – to get the Brexit deal she had negotiated past the Commons.
The Brexit Party had just been launched and was commanding the support of nearly one in five voters. The Conservatives themselves stood at just 26 per cent in the polls.
That downturn was reflected in the local results. The Conservatives suffered a net loss of over 1,300 seats and control of nearly 50 councils. It was the party’s biggest local election reverse for nearly a quarter of a century.
Still, that does not mean that the Conservatives can avoid some net losses this year. For if the Conservatives performed badly four years ago, Labour – divided at the time under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership over antisemitism and Brexit – registered a disappointing performance too.
With the party’s own average poll rating at only 32 per cent, Labour also fell back slightly, suffering a net loss of 86 seats and five councils.
Labour are clearly much stronger now. Even so, the polls point to a swing of only four to five points from Conservative to Labour as compared with four years ago. Such a performance could limit Labour’s net gains of council control to less than double figures, with Cheshire West & Chester, Plymouth and Swindon among the party’s top targets.
Labour might also make the 400 net gains from the Conservatives that would make it the biggest party in local government across Britain as a whole.
Meanwhile, a Labour advance on that scale could see the Conservatives lose control of a dozen or so councils, but perhaps not much more than that. Given the government’s campaign to “stop the boats” it will, though, particularly want not to lose control of potentially marginal Dover.
Not least of the reasons why Labour’s advance might appear quite limited is that 5,000 of the 8,000 seats at stake are in predominantly rural district councils, in many of which the party has a limited presence. Here it is often the Liberal Democrats who are the Conservatives’ principal challengers.
However, in contrast to both Labour and the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats are defending a relatively good performance four years ago. They made net gains of 700 seats, and captured control of a dozen councils.
While the party always performs better in local elections than its current standing in the national polls, it is still of note that its current poll rating of 9 per cent is much the same as the 8 per cent at which it stood four years ago.
That suggests that the Liberal Democrats may not do much more than hold their own. While that may be enough to retain control of most of the 17 councils they currently run, it is unlikely to be enough to inflict much damage on a Conservative Party that is at least not performing any worse than it was four years ago. That could reduce significantly the total tally of Conservative losses.
The Greens, who made nearly 200 net gains four years ago in what was one of their best local election performances ever, face much a similar challenge to the Liberal Democrats. Their sights are very much set on winning control of Mid-Suffolk, the one council where the party starts off in sight of the winning post.
However, there is one pattern that could upset the Conservative apple cart. What if opposition supporters are so disenchanted with the government that they back whichever of the Conservatives’ opponents are best able to defeat them locally?
There were clear signs of that happening in last year’s results, with the Liberal Democrats advancing most where they started off second to the Conservatives, and Labour doing so when they appeared the better placed to win locally; a pattern that inflated the party’s losses.
Mr Sunak has to hope that opposition voters are not as keen to give him a bloody nose as they were Boris Johnson 12 months ago.
John Curtice is professor of politics, Strathclyde University, and senior research fellow, National Centre for Social Research and The UK in a Changing Europe