Rishi Sunak is failing his first major electoral test

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LONDON ̵1; The Conservative Party suffered a heavy defeat in Rishi Sunak’s first major electoral test since becoming prime minister in October.

Voters went to the polls on Thursday to elect local representatives on 230 councils across England. In overnight results being counted, Labor gained control of some of its top target councils including Plymouth and Stoke-on-Trent and seized Medway council from the Tories after 20 years. The Conservatives lost control of 10 councils and more than 200 council seats, prompting forecasts that they are now on track to lose up to 1,000 seats – at the worst end of independent expectations.

The Liberal Democrats took control of Windsor and Maidenhead council in the constituency of former prime minister Theresa May for the first time in 16 years. Many seats have yet to be counted by Friday, but the early results are disappointing for Conservative headquarters.

Local election results are always an imperfect indicator. Thursday’s vote only took place in parts of England – and turnout is often quite low compared to national elections. This means that the results offer only a partial glimpse of the political headwinds.

Still, major party figures were already readied, with Labor jubilant and the Conservatives licking their wounds.

Shabana Mahmood, the Labor Party’s national campaign coordinator, said her party was now on course to win a majority in parliament. She told Sky News: “Under Keir’s leadership we have not only got ourselves back on the pitch, but we are winning back voters in the areas we need to win the next general election.”

Tory chairman Greg Hands admitted it was a disappointing night for his party – but argued Labor was not making the progress needed to win the next general election.

He told Sky News: “Obviously it is a disappointing time overall for the Conservatives, but I am quite clear that it is not like the euphoric Labor victory we had in 1995.”

Sunak insisted to broadcasters that his party was making progress in “key electoral battlegrounds” and said: “I can’t find any great groundswell of movement towards the Labor Party or enthusiasm for their agenda.”

Polling expert John Curtis offered a more measured take.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The clear message of the night is really that the Conservatives have done badly. Not just in terms of the fact that they have already lost 200 seats, but they could be – Although I can assert – 1,000 seats may be lost by the end of today, despite their expectation that this will not happen.

But he added: “The slightly more difficult point for the Labor Party is that yes, it has achieved some of its goals and it has already made significant gains, [but] It has to share the spoils with other opposition parties.

“And in particular, what the Labor Party will really have to think about in these results if this continues is that yes, the swing in local elections is roughly what you would expect from national elections – but not quite.”

So far less than a third of the councils have tallied their results, with the rest expected to do so by Friday. The next UK general election is expected to be held in 2024.