How The Local Elections Went So Badly Wrong For Rishi Sunak

Focusing on culture wars and stopping the boats backfired on the Tories.
A pledge to fix potholes simply reminded voters that the Tories have already been in power for 13 years.
A pledge to fix potholes simply reminded voters that the Tories have already been in power for 13 years.
Stefan Rousseau - PA Images via Getty Images

The most damning assessment of Rishi Sunak’s six months in office came just after 6am on Friday morning.

“I’ve seen no sign of a Rishi bounce,” said Alan Jarrett, the outgoing Tory leader of Medway Council, shortly before the local authority fell to Labour for the first time since 1998.

In just seven words, he trashed the Tory narrative that the prime minister had managed to turn round the party’s fortunes since taking over from Liz Truss six months ago.

Sunak’s government need to “get their act together on a number of fronts”, said Jarrett, citing the economy, housing and the NHS as key concerns for ordinary voters.

It was also noticeable that he didn’t say that the Conservatives need to step up the “war on woke” which typified much of their local election campaign.

Ask any politician of any party and they will tell you that the main topics which came up on the doorstep in the past few weeks of campaigning have been the cost of living crisis, followed by the state of the NHS.

Which is why many were bewildered by the Tories’ decision to focus so much of their campaign on culture war issues like the trans debate.

And while stopping the boats carrying asylum seekers across the English Channel is a concern for many voters, it was never likely to shift the dial in the local elections.

The end result was an even-worse-than-expected 1,000 Tory losses in a “dreadful” set of local elections for the party, which also saw them lose control of 48 councils.

Keir Starmer celebrates Labour's victory in Medway Council.
Keir Starmer celebrates Labour's victory in Medway Council.
Chris J Ratcliffe via Getty Images

A senior Labour source told HuffPost UK: “The Tory campaign was a total fucking shambles.

“They tried to make it all about boats - but look at the polling on boats. It just reminds people that they have been in government for 13 years and no one believes them.

“Then they tried to do potholes - and the country is full of bloody potholes.

“Then they tried to do culture war stuff. And the public basically said ’what?’

“We focused entirely on cost of living, crime, NHS and housing. All things they have failed on and they have no answers to.”

While the Tories suffered, Labour, the Lib Dems and Greens gained hundreds of seats and 35 councils.

One Keir Starmer ally said: “The Labour campaign was the best I’ve ever been part of - proper targeting, proper discipline and proper messaging. The Tory one was the worst I’ve ever seen them run.

“The Tories just don’t have any answers to the issues voters care about.”

As one defeated Conservative candidate told HuffPost UK: “Nobody cares about all of the culture war stuff – what they really want is the potholes to be fixed.”

“The Tory campaign was a total fucking shambles”

The Tory post-mortem has been swift and brutal for a prime minister now being pulled left and right by the competing factions in his party.

While some believe the government needs to drop any housebuilding targets, others believe such a move would be electoral suicide.

Broxbourne MP Charles Walker told Times Radio: “If the Conservatives don’t build homes for young people... if we go down that path, we won’t like what we find at the end of it.

“If we aren’t the housebuilding party, I don’t know what we are, quite frankly.”

Meanwhile, those on the party’s right wing are demanding Thatcherite tax cuts and spending cuts - an approach thus far resisted by the prime minister and chancellor Jeremy Hunt.

Former cabinet minister John Redwood said: “If the PM wants to win back lost Conservative voters he should try offering some Conservative policies. Cut taxes, get better value for state spending and go for growth.”

Fellow Brexiteer David Jones called for “a lower tax regime and control over illegal immigration”.

Others, however, blamed Boris Johnson and Liz Truss for the desperate position the Tories now find themselves in.

Former Brexit secretary David Davis said: “It is clear we’re paying the price for the end of the Boris and Liz Truss era.

“I think Rishi Sunak is doing a great job and getting a grip, but it will take time for us to get back from that.”

Lord Barwell - Theresa May’s former chief of staff - agreed.

“His two predecessors had totally trashed the Conservative brand, and he has managed to claw back a bit of the huge gap that he was behind,” he said.

“But if you look at the national polls, he’s still a long way back.”

Liz Truss and Boris Johnson have also been blamed for the Tory performance.
Liz Truss and Boris Johnson have also been blamed for the Tory performance.
Aaron Chown via PA Wire/PA Images

If there is a glimmer of light for the Tories, it is that voters still seem reluctant to give their wholehearted support to the Labour Party.

The eagerly-anticipated “projected national share” - the UK-wide state of the parties calculated by polling expert Sir John Curtice - gave Keir Starmer’s party a nine-point lead over the Conservatives.

While that would be enough to make them the largest party at the next election, it’s probably not enough to give them an overall majority.

With the general election most likely 18 months away, Sunak still has time to turn it around.

But with the massed ranks of Labour and Lib Dem foot soldiers now bolstered by hundreds more councillors, a difficult task has been made even harder for the embattled prime minister.


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