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Wed, 22 May 2024

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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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Dejected Tory MPs Say Rishi Sunak Is Still Their Best Shot At Victory

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak outside 10 Downing Street (Alamy)

5 min read

A brutal set of local elections results has left the Conservative party reeling, but bruised Tory MPs are sticking with Rishi Sunak as the person to lead it into the next general election.

Conservative MPs who spoke to PoliticsHome as the bleak picture of local election results for their party took shape worried that it served as a reminder of just how difficult it will be for the party to win its fifth consecutive general election next year. The party surrendered key councils nationwide to both Labour and the Liberal Democrats, as well as to the Green party for the first time.

But bar a small handful of Boris Johnson diehards who continue to insist the disgraced former prime minister should be reinstalled in No.10 – despite his poor polling with the general public – the consensus among Conservatives MPs is that standing by Sunak is still their best chance at stopping Labour leader Keir Starmer from becoming the next prime minister

“The results aren’t great and it’s bruising for colleagues who have lost councillors in their patch," one Tory backbencher and former secretary of state told PoliticsHome.

“We have a mountain to climb in the next 18 months, but the general feeling among colleagues is that Rishi is our best chance of reducing the size of that mountain," they said.

They said the local elections results, which saw the party lose hundreds of seats, "felt more of an anti-Conservative vote than a positive vote for a future Labour government", and that the Tories could still win back the "waverers and the disillusioned" before the next general election. 

Sunak's personal ratings confirm that he probably is the Conservatives' biggest asset, having brought a sense of stability to his party and Westminster politics since replacing Liz Truss in Downing Street six months ago. However, pollsters say Thursday's results show he is still struggling to repair the severe damage done to his party by the chaos unleashed over the last two years by Johnson and Truss. Survation's Damian Lyons Lowe said the PM was "trapped" between his party's tarnished brand and his government's poor ratings in dealing with major issues like the cost of living.

A veteran Tory activist who has worked on multiple election campaigns said the difficult reality facing Sunak is that the public is "fed up" with their party after 13 years in office and "want something new". They also agreed that Sunak had the "best chance" of pulling off an unlikely general election victory, and that he must "relentlessly focus on delivery".

Institute for Government researcher Peter Hourston predicted the Prime Minister will want to "move on quickly" from these local elections and may attempt to reseize control of the narrative through "a frenzy of No.10 announcements and initiatives". He added that Sunak might be tempted to offer policy concessions to Conservative backbenchers in a bid to lift the mood within the parliamentary party after the misery of the drubbing.

Conservative MP Rehman Chisti, whose local council Medway switched hands from the Tories to Labour on Thursday night, urged ministers to drop "divisive" culture wars and focus on delivering the government's priorities to fix the economy and stop small boats crossings. 

Chisti singled out Home Secretary Suella Braverman for criticism, saying her recent Spectator article about grooming gangs, in which she defended her claim that they are "almost all British-Pakistani" as an "unfashionable fact", was "divisive and dangerous".

“I have told the PM that we [the Conservatives] have 25 seats with significant faith communities. Creating an inclusive society is in our national interest," he said.

While there was disagreement among pollsters on Friday when it comes to the question of whether Labour is on course to form an overall majority in 2024 or to being the largest party, all agreed that the party was in poll position to win the next general election.

As the results came in on Friday, the huge, uphill challenge facing the Tories in avoiding defeat at the next election became clear: not only did the party bleed support to Labour in key areas of the country, prompting Starmer to say his party was on track to forming a majority, but also to Ed Davey's Liberal Democrats in traditional Conservative areas in the South of England.

The Lib Dems' strong showing, which saw them make gains in areas inhabited by several high-profile Conservatives, will only fuel the concern of Tory MPs in the party's traditional southern seats that the so-called 'blue wall' risks coming down in 2024.

"If you look at where we won, it is places we are threatening incumbent Conservatives in the blue wall," Liberal Democrat MP Richard Foord told PoliticsHome. Foord recently took his seat from the Tories a by-election in Tiverton and Honiton after Neil Parish was forced to stand down over being caught watching porn in the Commons. The Tories had held the seat since its creation in 1997. 

"Take West Berkshire, where part of the council area covers John Redwood’s constituency. The Lib Dems are the principle challengers there," Foord continued.  "That is just one example, and there are plenty of others."

Sunak has succeeded in bringing calm and unity to the Conservatives following the chaos and acrimony of his predecessors. The size of his next challenge, namely, helping his party avert defeat at the next general election, was crystallised this week. 

Additional reporting from Caitlin Doherty and Tom Scotson.

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