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Local Elections Comedown Could Hit A Tory Party High On Hope

PM Rishi Sunak at the Caterpillar factory in Cambridgeshire (Alamy)

5 min read

Conservative MPs are increasingly optimistic that thanks to a series of recent successes by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, that they will be forgiven for the last year of Tory chaos when people go to the polls for May's local elections.

But the question remains over whether the Tory brand is so irreparably damaged by Liz Truss's disastrous stint in Downing Street, the lingering scent of scandal surrounding Boris Johnson's involvement in partygate, and allegations of sleaze, that the party will nonetheless take a hammering on 4 May.

"There’s no real evidence of a significant Tory comeback at the moment," according to Kieran Pedley, Director of Politics at pollster Ipsos MORI, who felt the party was still a long way off a general election victory in 2024. 

"We are still seeing convincing leads for the Labour Party and strong levels of dissatisfaction with government performance. The Conservatives are in a bad place," he told PoliticsHome.

There are, however, reasons for Rishi Sunak and his MPs to have some hope. While the Conservatives drag far behind Labour in the polls, Sunak's improving personal ratings versus Keir Starmer's continued struggle to appeal to voters is fuelling Tory optimism that the PM can recover ahead of the next general election in 2024.

“The mood within the Conservative party is undoubtedly better than what it was,” Lord Robert Hayward, Conservative peer and leading elections analyst, told PoliticsHome.

“There’s relief that the canvassing doesn’t appear to be that bad, and a feeling that the party won’t lose as many parliamentary seats as it would have a few months ago.”

A Tory party source was also pleasantly surprised by the reception they'd received during the first week of campaigning proper for the local elections. "People on the doorstep are open to listening to what we have to say," they told PoliticsHome. "They’re impressed with Tories delivering locally, and with the way Rishi is getting a grip of some of the most important issues that people are facing."

Hayward felt that Starmer has found himself in the "abnormal" position of being significantly less popular than his party. A scathing editorial by the Labour-supporting Guardian newspaper published on Tuesday stated "no one knows" what Starmer stands for and accused him of failing "to capture the mood of the country".

Polling by Ipsos MORI published the same day to mark three years since Starmer was elected as party leader, succeeding Jeremy Corbyn, suggested that his personal ratings were even starting to go backwards. The poll found that Starmer's overall net satisfaction ratings had fallen by four percentage points, while PM Sunak's had increased by five, putting the rival leaders more or less at neck and neck.

But the same poll put Labour overall 23 per cent ahead of the Conservatives, with 77 per cent of respondents saying they are dissatisfied with how the government is running the country. Two thirds felt the next general election, which must be called by December 2024, would be "a time for a change".

Rob Ford, Professor of Political Science at the University of Manchester, said Starmer's uninspiring ratings would become a "bigger problem" for Labour if there was a major revival of the Tory party brand, but that there were no signs of that happening at the moment. While Sunak's own ratings are moving in a positive direction, they aren't exactly "stellar", he added.

“There is a widespread belief that Labour blows leads and Tories bounce back from mid-term blues – and that’s not without foundation," he told PoliticsHome

"But aside from some modest improvement in Sunak’s personal ratings, this isn’t showing in the opinion polling yet."

"History means people are looking for a scrap of evidence in support of this belief, which is another reason why team Labour will really want a dominant local elections performance.”

There are over 8,000 council seats up for grabs in May's locals and in parts of the country that could go some way to indicating the direction of the next general election. These include Midlands marginals Dudley and Walsall, where the Conservatives and Labour will fight it out, and middle-class Tory heartlands like Surrey and Warwickshire, where Liberal Democrats pose a threat.

Under Corbyn, Labour managed to lose seats at the 2019 local elections. This means the party will go into the poll from a low base and in a strong position to make many hundreds of gains nationwide, potentially giving Starmer an opportunity to regain momentum. 

The Tories too are starting from a low base, having lost seats under Boris Johnson three years ago, which they hope will mean the scale of their losses will be smaller than expected.

"For Sunak, a messy picture with bright spots, where losses are small relative to expectations – and there’ll be lots of expectation setting – will help the narrative that the party has turned the corner," Ford added.

Successfully averting disaster – or what CCHQ chooses to define as disaster – at next month's local elections may help Sunak in his bid to show that under his leadership, the Conservative party has not given up on retaining power beyond 2024 just yet.

But the task of pulling off an unlikely victory for his party at the next general election remains enormous.

"The fundamentals don't augur well for the Tories," Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, wrote for The House this week.

He argued that while inflation is coming down, and action to tackle small boats crossings may improve the Tory position ahead of the next election, falling living standards and the creaking NHS will eclipse any such successes as the most pressing issues for voters.

“The Tory party was in a very dire position, and now it is in a dire position," Lord Hayward added.

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