After today’s results, Sunak will need to give people reasons to vote Tory again. Does he have any? | Rafael Behr

Following the Westminster adage that Tory MPs are always cycling between complacency and panic, Rishi Sunak should brace himself for a party conniption in response to English local election results.

The Conservative mood has been optimistic of late, relative to the apocalyptic defeatism that gripped the party in the aftermath of Liz Truss’s auto-combustible misrule.

Sunak stabilised the Tory poll position, instilling belief that defeat at the next general election was merely likely, not a nailed-on certainty. MPs took comfort from their leader’s personal ratings – more buoyant than the party brand – and also from doubts about Keir Starmer’s appeal as a potential prime minister.

The turning point was negotiation of the Windsor framework to settle disagreement in Brussels over the Northern Ireland protocol of the Brexit withdrawal agreement. That showed a capacity for strategic competence that had been conspicuously absent from Downing Street under Sunak’s predecessors. The subsequent votes in parliament tested Boris Johnson’s capacity to muster vengeful insurrection on the backbenches and found it lacking.

But sometimes a mild directional shift in the wind blowing through Westminster is overinterpreted as a change in the weather. There are fundamental facts about the political climate that militate against the Tories winning an unprecedented fifth term, notably the 13-year reign that has left most voters feeling poorer now than they were at the start.

The Windsor framework turns out not to have impressed voters in Windsor itself, a traditionally Conservative town that, as of this morning, has a Liberal Democrat council.

All the usual warnings against overextrapolation from local election results apply. The choices people might make when selecting counsellors are different from the preferences expressed when national power is up for grabs. (Unpopular tree-felling by local Tories in Plymouth appears to have helped Labour to a significant victory there, for instance.) Ruling parties can expect to suffer from a more energised protest vote in local ballots, while looking forward to a pro-government swing in general elections.

Local ballots express movement from a baseline set four years earlier, the last time a particular tranche of council seats was contested, with results coloured by abnormalities of the moment. May 2019 feels longer ago than four years, and weirder than most times in British politics. The electoral field was a churned-up bog between trenches of pro- and anti-Brexit opinion that cut across conventional party lines.

That carnage redrew the electoral map, but it is still not clear how deep the changes went; whether traditional Labour and Tory allegiances were permanently reconfigured as voters mustered to leave and remain banners instead. The effect certainly wasn’t transient or negligible, as Johnson’s landslide victory in 2019 demonstrated.

Just two years ago, the Tories had a six-point lead over Labour in local elections – a remarkable achievement for a party that had been in office for more than a decade. (That, too, was a weird time, mid-pandemic, pre-partygate.)

The picture of today’s results as viewed through a lens of post-Brexit realignment is not pretty for Sunak. Former Conservative strongholds such as Windsor and Maidenhead are switching to the Lib Dems. That doesn’t express a diehard remainer revanche but it does reflect anger among moderate, liberal-minded, university graduates – the kind of people who glided between support for Tony Blair and David Cameron, recoiled from the idea of making Jeremy Corbyn prime minister, got fed up with Johnson’s lies and then lost all confidence in the Tories when they saddled the country with Truss.

Ed Davey celebrates Liberal Democrat success on 5 May, 2023 in Windsor, England.
Ed Davey celebrates Liberal Democrat success on 5 May, 2023 in Windsor, England. Photograph: Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images

Meanwhile, the famous “red wall” of traditional Labour bastions in the Midlands and the north that swung hard to Johnson in 2019 now looks much less secure for the Tories. Keir Starmer is celebrating symbolic gains in Stoke-on-Trent, Hartlepool and Middlesbrough. He will feel vindicated in his tactical focus on reclaiming that terrain, without which a Westminster majority is beyond reach.

Given the scale of the task – salvaging a sunken wreck from the bottom of an electoral sea – opposition MPs are justified in feeling cautiously confident that the tide is turning their way.

The official Labour line that today’s results translate into general election victory puts a generous gloss on numbers that, according to some analysts, point to a hung parliament. That tallies with many opposition MPs’ private dread of falling short of a majority when the whole nation goes to the polls.

Partly that is the twinge of old battle scars on a party that has known too many defeats to ever feel sure of victory. Partly also it is the effect of Labour MPs hearing the same doorstep reservations about Starmer – uncertainty about what he stands for, who he even is – that Conservatives clutch as straws of comfort.

But Starmer does not need to be much more magnetic than Sunak as a leader as long as the Tories are voter-repellant enough. The results suggest they are.

Crucially, the electoral geography of the coming battle looks auspicious for tactical voting. The battle lines carve up the task of deposing Conservatives quite neatly between Labour and Lib Dems. Very crudely speaking, the former retake the red wall while the latter burrows under the blue one, without too much competition between opposition candidates.

The Greens complicate the picture a bit, and these things are never tidy, but it looks feasible for Starmer to supplant Sunak in No 10 as the beneficiary of an informal get-the-Tories-out bloc. (And that is before any benefit from the incipient unravelling of Scottish nationalism is taken into account.)

The more imminent danger for the prime minister is that his MPs look at the way the numbers are stacking up against them and decide they are doomed. Message discipline and party loyalty are essential for any kind of Tory recovery. Both are soluble in fear. The prospect of defeat on multiple fronts will provoke wildly divergent diagnoses of the problem and incompatible prescriptions for what Sunak should do about it. The loss of hundreds of councillors and the demoralisation of activists makes a cacophony of complaint.

There will be a great grinding of ideological axes – on taxation, on Europe, on immigration – each one brandished as the magic weapon to deliver electoral salvation. The gears of the Tory machine, which has been running quite smoothly of late, could crunch as the party mood cycles into panic mode.

Then the prophecy of defeat becomes self-fulfilling. Indiscipline feeds government dysfunction and further public impatience for regime change.

None of this is certain. There is still time for opposition missteps, spells of competence in Downing Street and an uptick in the economy. Every lesson from British politics in recent years cautions against forecasting with confidence. But it seems likely that the question in most voters’ minds by the time of a general election will be whether the Tories deserve yet another turn in government. Sunak will need to give them good reasons to say yes. The way things look today, he doesn’t have them.

The Guardian