British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak̵7;s Conservatives were facing a bleak set of local election results on Friday with voters punishing his party after a year of political scandalssurging inflation and stagnant economic growth.
While governing parties often struggle at mid-term elections, the council results in England will be the largest, and possibly last, test of voter sentiment before the next general election which is expected to be held next year.
Sunak came to power in October amid a cost-of-living crisis, mounting concern about healthcare, widespread industrial action that has disrupted public services, and waning enthusiasm for Britain’s decision to leave the European Union.
Counting has only taken place in about a quarter of the 8,000 council seats in local government authorities, which have responsibility for the day-to-day provision of services such as bin collections and schools.
Results, which do not affect the government’s majority in parliament, showed the Conservatives suffering a net loss of 235 seats while the main opposition Labour Party added 122 seats and the Liberal Democrats gained 63.
Labour said in a statement that based on these results it was on track to win the next general election with an eight-point lead over the Conservatives.
Sunak’s party suffered losses to Labour in key target seats in the north and southern England, while the Liberal Democrats were advancing in wealthier parts of the south.
The prime minister told reporters the results so far showed that people wanted his ruling party to deliver on their priorities, but that it was still too early in the process of announcing results to draw firm conclusions.
John Curtice, Britain’s best-known pollster, said the Conservatives were in “considerable electoral trouble” based on the results so far and could face a net loss of about 1,000 seats — in line with the party’s most pessimistic forecast.
He added the four-point swing towards Labour since 2019 was below what might have been expected, given its double-digit lead in opinion polls, though added smaller parties do better in local elections.
“While the rebuff from the voters to the Conservatives was unambiguous, there may still be a question mark over the level of their enthusiasm for the Labour alternative,” he said.
A full picture of the state of the parties will not become clear until later on Friday when most of the councils will announce their results.
Sunak has tried to restore the credibility of the Conservatives since he was made prime minister in October, the party’s third prime minister in the past year.
Boris Johnson was ousted as leader partly over parties held in government buildings during COVID-19 lockdowns, while Liz Truss was brought down following a gamble on tax cuts that shattered Britain’s reputation for financial stability.
Sunak’s party lost control of at least eight councils in what Johnny Mercer, a member of parliament for Plymouth, said was a “terrible” night for the Conservatives.
The last time most of these local election seats were contested was in 2019 when the Conservatives lost more than 1,300 seats which had been expected to help limit the losses in these elections.
Labour made gains in some areas that backed leaving the European Union in the 2016 Brexit referendum which the party will need to win over if it wants to achieve a majority at the next general election.
In the early hours of Friday morning, Labour won control of Plymouth, Stoke-on-Trent and Medway councils, three key battleground areas regarded as important to the party’s hopes of retuning to power nationally.
“Make no mistake, we are on course for a Labour majority at the next general election,” Labour leader Keir Starmer said on a visit to Medway.