Tories expect ‘significant losses’ at local elections, Chancellor says

Jeremy Hunt has said the Conservatives will likely suffer “significant losses” in the local elections as the party braces itself for a contest seen as the final test of public opinion before a general election.

The Chancellor sought to manage expectations before voters head to the polls on Thursday, suggesting the Tories are anticipating defeat in hundreds of seats.

Forecasts suggest the Tories could lose up to half of the council seats they are defending, having lost a third of seats last year.

He told Sky News’ Politics Hub: “Tony Blair easily lost those amounts of councillors. And, you know, David Cameron lost hundreds of councillors in the run up to the 2015 general election.

“So, you know, we are expecting to see significant losses. That often happens in local elections.

“But what we say to people is, look, this may be a moment when you want to express a view about the national picture but actually the local services you depend on will be decided by how you vote.”

Speculation has mounted that the prospect of a major defeat could push more Tory MPs into seeking to replace Rishi Sunak as leader and potentially trigger an early general election.

But on Wednesday, Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch insisted that the Prime Minister’s position was not under threat regardless of the outcome.

“I think there’s a lot of noise being made by people who want to get attention but the Prime Minister has the full backing of the Cabinet, he has my full backing,” she said.

Asked whether that would be the case even if the Conservatives suffered a drubbing on Thursday, Ms Badenoch said: “I think that is right.”

The Prime Minister’s press secretary earlier did not deny a Bloomberg report that Mr Sunak told Tory staff that they could be part of the “greatest comeback in history”, in an admission of the scale of the challenge he faces.

The press secretary said: “There is no doubt that we have work to do. It’s obviously been a really tough time for the country with Covid and Ukraine and the impact of that on inflation.

“But… I can look back at the last week, we’ve done a massive defence announcement which Labour have not matched, which means that our country would be at risk under Labour.

“We’ve done a massive welfare intervention to address the unsustainable rise in the welfare bill. And we are clearly making some progress on tackling illegal immigration.”

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Most of the seats up for re-election on Thursday were last contested in 2021, at the peak of Boris Johnson’s popularity as the Covid-19 vaccine was rolled out.

A total of 11 mayoral contests are also taking place, including for the London mayoralty between frontrunners, Labour incumbent Sadiq Khan and Tory challenger Susan Hall.

Polling has consistently put Mr Khan ahead of Ms Hall, with a poll published on Wednesday by Savanta giving him a 10-point advantage after his lead narrowed over the campaign.

Conservative mayors Andy Street in the West Midlands, and Tees Valley’s Ben Houchen, are also facing key re-election battles, with polls suggesting knife-edge contests with their Labour opponents.

Both received backing from Boris Johnson and Mr Sunak’s press secretary was asked whether the current Prime Minister was concerned about the candidates distancing themselves from the party and his leadership.

Wins for both incumbents would offer the Tories a ray of light in what forecasts suggest could be a dismal set of results, but experts warned the metro mayor races would be the “least reliable indicator” of what could happen at a general election.

Mr Street makes minimal reference to his party allegiance on his campaign website and Mr Johnson wrote a letter which said “you might not like everything the Conservatives have done” and urged voters to “forget about the Government” and back the West Midlands mayor because of his personal record.

Sir John Curtice told an Institute for Government event on Wednesday: “Because of the personal votes of these two, (these contests are) going to be the least reliable indicator.

“Whereas the elections for the councillor of whom nobody has ever heard, in Tunbridge Wells or wherever, is going to be a much more reliable guide because these persons will have much less in the way of personal appeal.

“The Conservative Party is doing this because they think they might manage to win the contest and therefore they’ll be able to cover whatever disasters happen elsewhere.

“Equally, conversely here in London, Sadiq Khan will not do as well as the Labour Party would do in a general election because Sadiq has a negative personal vote. But this city is now so strong Labour, he’s going to win anyway.”

In a video for Lord Houchen, Mr Johnson praised his “fantastic vision” and described him as a “guy who does what he says he is going to do”.

The Prime Minister’s press secretary said Mr Sunak had been out campaigning with both candidates and welcomed Mr Johnson’s involvement.

Labour suggested the mayoral election system favours incumbents, as it sought to manage expectations about victory in the West Midlands and Tees Valley.

But Sir Keir Starmer did signal he was “hopeful” of winning the West Midlands contest, telling Sky: “Of course I’m hopeful. I want to win it. But I do recognise it’s a really tough ask.”

The Opposition has also indicated it hopes to win the Blackpool South Westminster by-election, which is taking place on Thursday.

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The Liberal Democrats, who have focused campaigning efforts in traditional Conservative areas, have said Thursday is a chance for voters to send a message to “this out-of-touch Conservative Government”.

Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey, who has visited so-called “blue wall” areas during the campaign, added: “In former Conservative heartlands like Tunbridge Wells, Dorset and Wokingham voters are switching to the Liberal Democrats after years of failure from this Conservative Government.

“Every vote for the Liberal Democrats is a vote to elect a strong local champion, who will fight for a fair deal for you and your community.”