UK Tories suffer losses in Sunak's first electoral test
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 across swathes of England on Thursday illuminated the main parties' standing ahead of a UK-wide general election expected next year.
Sunak admitted results looked "disappointing" but claimed he was "not detecting any massive groundswell of movement" towards the main Labour opposition or "excitement for its agenda".
However, with over half of the 230 English districts having declared by late afternoon, his party had lost nearly 600 seats and control of almost 30 councils. Labour had netted more than 300 new seats and control of 12 new districts.
Vote counting in the more than 8,000 seats will only be complete later Friday, just as Britain gears up for Saturday's coronation of King Charles III.
But Labour leader Keir Starmer crowed that the trend was already clear.
"Make no mistake, we are on course for a Labour majority at the next general election," he told cheering activists in Medway, southeast England, one of the councils seized by his party from the Tories.
"We've won the trust, the confidence of voters, and now we can go on to change our country."
- 'Older news' -
Starmer has been remoulding the party after it suffered its worst general election performance in decades in 2019, when ex-prime minister Boris Johnson won by a landslide vowing to "get Brexit done".
The party has enjoyed double-digit national polls leads since late last year, as the Tories felt the fallout from several chaotic weeks when they ditched Johnson and then Liz Truss as leader in quick succession.
Conservative transport minister Huw Merriman indicated his party was still paying the price for that tumult.
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.
However, Labour was projected to have won a nine-point lead over the Conservatives if all of Britain had gone to the polls, enough, it claimed, for Starmer to become prime minister.
The party won control of prized targets such as Medway in southeast England, Plymouth in the southwest and Stoke-on-Trent in the Midlands -- where in 2016, 70 percent of voters backed Brexit.
Labour is particularly targeting former strongholds in northern England, the so-called "red wall", which crumbled in 2019.
- 'Exceeding all expectations' -
The smaller Liberal Democrat party was also performing strongly, gaining more than 200 seats and control of six more councils.
It 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."
Meanwhile, the Green Party took full control of a council for the first time, in Suffolk in eastern England.
Jonathan Carr-West, chief executive of the Local Government Information Unit, noted that the Conservatives were already defending a dismal showing the last time the same council districts voted in 2019.
"Voters may well return to the Conservative fold" at the next general election, he told AFP.
"But yes, it's looking pretty bad for them so far. To do badly from a very bad baseline in 2019 is very, very bad indeed."
Sunak meanwhile defended a law change 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 Commission vowed to review numerous reports of voters being turned away on Thursday.