20231211 rishi sunak
Rishi Sunak, UK Prime Minister Image Credit: AFP

The political outlook now facing UK Prime Minister Rishi and his Conservative government after last week’s local elections where new councils and some mayors were elected in parts of England is consequential. With a general election due in the UK before the end of the year, the results of those elections will weigh heavily on Sunak and his MPs.

Trailing badly in opinion polls for two years now, the council elections are the first large-scale measure of Sunak’s leadership and a litmus test for his MPs as to whether they stand any chance of avoiding complete annihilation when the PM does call that general election. Unless the vast majority of Labour voters are somehow deterred from turning out to vote then, the Conservatives are fighting a losing battle and the only question to be settled is how big will that loss be.

Perhaps not the only question for Tory MPs. They will be looking at those council results and wondering whether their losses might not be so big if someone other than Sunak was leading the party and the country in that general election campaign.

Incidentally, when it comes to voters somehow being deterred from casting their ballots, there was a delicious piece of political irony served up in South Oxford when former PM Boris Johnson was refused a ballot paper because he had no government-issued photo ID on him, a rule change Boris brought in as a sop to those on the Tory right who looked at the Trumpian playbook for popular inspiration. He had to scuttle off and return later, and while we have seen Boris scuttle off before, there is a hope among many on that Tory right that he will return someday to the national stage.

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The last time the councils being contested in Thursday’s vote were selected, it came in the afterglow of Johnson’s government being the first in the world to begin the mass roll-out of Covid-19 vaccines — and before the truth of what was going on behind the scenes at Whitehall emerged: Johnson and his colleagues were partying while Britain was locked down and had one of the highest death rates from coronavirus in the Western world.

That all seems so long ago now and the UK has had two more prime ministers since then.

It’s just that Conservative fortunes and fundamentals, policy and politics, outlook and outrage, have become ever so negative and internecine since then. The party has lost its way.

The worse the polls, the more intense the infighting, like a bag of cats fighting over a fish bone.

And that’s just after opinion polls.

Thursday provided a real poll, where voters turned away from the Conservatives en masse.

Pretty much half of the Conservative seats on councils were lost.

Tory future is bleak

Conservative spin doctors would have you believe that council elections results can’t be extrapolated to the national stage and that there are many local, parochial issues that affect how people vote. True. But local parochial issues like bin collection, planning, policing, care homes, support for schools and community hubs, are all determined directly from Westminster.

Since the Conservatives came to power 14 years ago they have gutted local government financing for things like bins and policing, care and community homes, and set priorities for planning and the like. Oh, and at least a dozen municipalities have or are entering bankruptcy.

Basically, whatever way the Tories try and spin it, it’s a catastrophic disaster for the party in general and Sunak in particular.

With Britain needing solutions to its myriad of mostly Conservative-created crises, Sunak has offered slogans and solitude from a man seemingly out of touch with his nation.

“Stop the boats” is the slogan of the day now. And with more than £500 million (Dh2.3 billion) spent over the past two years since Johnson floated the policy of sending refugees and asylum seekers to Rwanda for processing, not a single one has been placed on any plane yet. Empty slogans. Empty coffers.

Instead the voters who turned out want their bins collected, their buses to run, their police to be visible in towns and cities, their relatives to be cared for in homes that are properly staffed — they’re not and that’s a direct consequence of getting Brexit done — and want to live in communities that are not creaking at the seams because of years of Conservative cuts.

So, yes, right now, after Thursday’s results where Conservative support was lowly numbered, Conservative days are numbered, so too Sunak’s.

You know it’s true when one of the most influential figures in the party offers up a backhanded compliment of his leadership that my late Mother could have uttered: “He’s a nice and decent man but he just can’t do politics.”