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Risk Of Tory Mayor Defeats Raises The Heat On Rishi Sunak

Andy Street, Conservative party mayor of the West Midlands (Alamy)

3 min read

The prospect of Conservative party mayors Andy Street and Ben Houchen losing their seats at the May local elections is the latest addition to a long list of Tory worries, with concern it could create a major flashpoint for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's fortunes.

The Tories are expected to suffer significant losses when local elections are held nationwide on Thursday 2 May as the party continues to trail Keir Starmer's Labour by large, double-digit margins in the opinion polls. Recent data suggests the gap between the two parties has grown this month.

The local authorities up for grabs in early May are particularly difficult for Sunak as they were last contested in 2021, when the Conservative party under former prime minister Boris Johnson was more popular with voters.

With polling day approaching, attention is starting to turn to how many council seats the Tories can expect to lose in what will be the last set of local elections before the next general election.

Conservative MPs now also believe the fate of Street and Houchen could also have a big impact on how Tory backbenchers respond to the results on the night.

Mayor of the West Midlands Street and Tees Valley Mayor Houchen are popular figures among Conservatives and seen as the party's two strongest figures outside of Westminster.

Defeat for either of the pair, or even a large swing against them, would likely fuel concern among Tory MPs in their regions about what awaits them at the next general election, which must be called before the end of this year.

Tory backbenchers believe Houchen is likely to hold onto his seat given the scale of his victory at the 2021 mayoral election in Tees Valley. He defeated Labour's Jessie Joe Jacobs with 73 per cent of the vote.

There is more concern about Street — whose margin of victory over Labour three years ago was significantly narrower than Houchen's. Street defeated Labour candidate Liam Byrne MP by around eight per cent to secure re-election.

Street has had an awkward relationship with the government in recent months.

In October, he found himself at loggerheads with the UK Tory party over Sunak's controversial decision to abandon plans for the HS2 railway to connect Birmingham with Manchester.

The Prime Minister announced the policy at the Tory party's Autumn conference in Manchester, despite Street warning him that truncating the planned line would be "turning your back on an opportunity to level up, a once in a generation opportunity". Street said he wouldn't give up "without a fight", but ultimately decided against resigning.

Downing Street declined to explicitly defend either candidate when asked about the perceived risk to their seats in May. "We are not commentators. We are participants in these local elections," they told PoliticsHome on Wednesday. "We will be going into them fighting for every vote."

Ahead of the vote, Sunak's position in No.10 appears safe despite fevered speculation about his future in recent weeks. 

Many Conservative MPs have told PoliticsHome last week was when they realised defeat awaited them at the next general election. The mood within the parliamentary Tory party turned even more gloomy after a "bleak" succession of events including Lee Anderson MP's defection to Reform and the race row centred on major Conservative party donor Frank Hester.

Despite the misery, however, PoliticsHome understands that only a small handful of Tory MPs actually want a change of leadership, and that the majority of Conservative backbenchers oppose the idea. But it is unclear whether this position would survive the loss of a major Tory figure in the May elections. 

Sunak will attempt to shore up his position on Wednesday night when he addresses Conservative MPs at a meeting of the party's 1922 Committee.

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