Sunak came to power in October following a year of political scandals, surging inflation and stagnant economic growth. In office he has faced a cost-of-living crisis, mounting concern about healthcare and widespread industrial action. Image Credit: AFP

LONDON: Britain’s ruling Conservatives suffered high-profile losses as results poured in Friday from Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s first major electoral test since he took office last year.

In the depths of the worst cost-of-living crisis in decades, the local council elections held Thursday across swathes of England illuminated the main parties’ standing ahead of a UK-wide general election expected next year.

The vote counting will only be complete later Friday, from 230 English districts electing more than 8,000 council seats, just as Britain gears up for Saturday’s coronation of King Charles III.

But the main opposition Labour party crowed that the trend was already clear.

“These results have been a disaster for Rishi Sunak as voters punish him for the Tories’ failure,” said Shabana Mahmood, Labour’s national campaign co-ordinator.

“These results show that we are on course for a majority Labour government,” she added.

By 7:40 am (0640 GMT), 60 councils had declared their results. Sunak’s Tories had lost 209 seats - one-third of the total they were defending so far.

That trend would put the centre-right party on course for its worst defeat in local elections since the mid-1990s, before Labour took power nationally in a landslide under Tony Blair.

Transport minister Huw Merriman indicated that his party was paying the price for the chaotic few weeks last year when it ditched Boris Johnson and then Liz Truss as leader in quick succession.

Local constituents have been “talking about older news about former prime ministers - but saying your current leader seems to have what it takes”, he told the BBC, insisting that Sunak was on the right track.

“He seems to be turning things around for us, but this is the opportunity for the electorate to give their vote on where we have been previously,” Merriman said.

Labour was up 110 seats, and took control of prized targets in Plymouth in southwest England, Medway in the southeast and Stoke-on-Trent in the Midlands.

Red and blue walls

Extrapolating to a national result in the next general election, Mahmood said Labour’s vote share lead over the Tories stood at more than eight percent - enough for leader Keir Starmer to become prime minister.

In national polls, Labour has built a double-digit lead over the Conservatives, and portrayed Thursday as a referendum on “13 years of Tory failure”.

The party is particularly targeting its former strongholds in northern England, the so-called “red wall”, which Johnson turned Tory in the 2019 general election on a vow to “get Brexit done”.

The smaller Liberal Democrat party was up 56 seats, and was making inroads in wealthy Conservative districts on the edge of London that are represented nationally by members of Sunak’s cabinet - the “blue wall”.

The centrist opposition party took control of the council in Windsor and Maidenhead, west of London, an area represented in Westminster by former prime minister Theresa May.

“We are exceeding all expectations,” Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey said.

“We have delivered a hammer blow to the Conservative party in the blue wall ahead of next year’s general election.”

Surveys suggest voters are deeply worried about decades-high inflation and the crisis engulfing the state-run National Health Service, as doctors and nurses strike for better pay.

Sunak had already conceded on Wednesday that his Tory party faced a “hard” trial with the voters.

“I’ve only been prime minister for six months but I do believe we’re making good progress,” he said.

Sunak also defended a change introduced by his government for these elections requiring voters to show photo identification for the first time, a move denounced by Labour and others as an attempt to suppress the vote.

The Electoral Reform Society, one of the critics, said Thursday it had seen “countless examples of people being denied their right to vote due to these new laws”.