‘Like the Somme without the generals’: Tory nerves grow as local elections loom

<span>Many Conservative MPs are said to feel restless before local election results that may deliver more bad news for the party.</span><span>Photograph: Daniel Harvey Gonzalez/In Pictures/Getty Images</span>
Many Conservative MPs are said to feel restless before local election results that may deliver more bad news for the party.Photograph: Daniel Harvey Gonzalez/In Pictures/Getty Images

The local elections on 2 May have long been regarded as a moment of high peril for Rishi Sunak, with the results likely to anticipate his party’s fate at the next election.

“My colleagues are feeling very restless,” admits one moderate Tory MP. “Rishi needs to show us that the general election isn’t already lost. If we lose the mayoralties in May then I’m afraid we could be on course for a total wipeout. It could be very dangerous for him.”

The Tories have already priced in heavy losses in the council elections, with experts predicting they face defeat in as many as half of their contested seats.

Related: ‘You can’t rule out a complete panicked meltdown’: Tories fear wipeout after another disastrous week

Loyalists point out that many were last fought in 2021, when a still relatively popular Boris Johnson was in No 10 and the government had not yet been rocked by the Partygate scandal or Liz Truss’s emergency budget.

The party was also 10 points ahead of Labour in the national polls – but are now 20 points behind. Such a high-water mark means that, four years on, Conservative losses are inevitable.

But one senior Tory suggests that council losses – especially in parts of the country such as Milton Keynes, Dudley and Thurrock where swing voters may influence the general election result – could push some Tory MPs over the edge.

“If your constituency chair is on the phone telling you that your local association has been wiped out, it’s quite difficult to defend ‘priced in’,” they said. “MPs aren’t on the battlefield this time, it’s like the Somme without the generals.”

Yet while Sunak supporters appear resigned to losing 500 council seats, they bristle at the prospect of defeat in their metro mayoralties of the West Midlands and Tees Valley.

“We hope that Andy Street and Ben Houchen will be OK,” says one usually loyal Tory MP. “But their fate will decide if it’s just a bad night for Rishi or a catastrophic one. If either of them lose, it will leave us feeling very anxious about what the general election will bring.”

Downing Street aides deny that Sunak’s fate rests on the outcome of the two high-profile mayoral races, arguing instead that the contests will be fought on regional issues.

Yet both will inevitably be seen as bellwethers for Conservative fortunes in the general election expected later this year, and a test of the party’s chances of holding on to voters in two key battlegrounds where Labour is targeting seats.

Andy Street, the West Midlands mayor, has visibly distanced himself from the party, with little Conservative branding on his literature, which is green rather than blue, and promoted what he calls “Brand Andy, the individual”.

He wants voters to focus on him and his record – including his fallout with Sunak last autumn over the HS2 rail route – not the performance of the party nationally. One cabinet minister said he was “wearing his Tory colours lightly”.

A Redfield & Wilton poll last week found that he trails behind the Labour candidate, Richard Parker, by 14 points, with Parker on 42% of the vote compared with Street’s 28%. Reform is snapping at his heels on 13%.

Ben Houchen’s prospects of winning a second term in the Tees Valley seem brighter, not least because he was elected in 2021 with 72.8% of the vote, compared with 27.2% for Labour, leading to his allies jokingly celebrating the “North Korean level” result.

Since then, the government has poured tens of millions into the region while Houchen, the poster boy for the party’s levelling up policy, retains a local popularity that seems to defy the national mood.

Yet despite the odds, the Tories are still nervous precisely because the party’s fortunes look so different four years on. Houchen also faces questions over his handling of Teesworks, the regeneration project on the site of the former Redcar steelworks.

“It’s not so long ago that the prospect of Ben losing would be unthinkable,” says one local Tory. “But Labour are throwing everything at Tees Valley and the bigger picture isn’t easy for us.”

Sunak loyalists remain optimistic that the majority of Tory MPs, while fairly despondent with the current state of play, recognise that getting rid of yet another prime minister this side of the general election could be terminal.

No 10 believes that much of the agitating against the current leadership is the work of a small number of disgruntled MPs, some of whom have leadership ambitions themselves and want to make life difficult for the prime minister.

MPs do appear to have postponed their infighting until after the local elections, but a disastrous set of results could, other insiders believe, focus the minds of more moderate MPs and boost the number of rebels.

“There’s a cohort of MPs who are staring down the barrel of complete annihilation at the election and don’t feel they’ve got anything to lose. They’re extremely volatile,” says one former minister.