Many Britons will enjoy the long weekend while celebrating the coronation of King Charles III. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is unlikely to be one of them.
Instead, he will be pondering a bleak future after watching a dire set of results pour in from a swath of municipal elections held around the country on Thursday. And they made grim viewing for a man hoping to lead his Conservative Party back to power in just over a year’s time at the next UK general election.
With most of the results declared by early evening on Friday, the Conservatives had lost control of 45 local administrations and shed more than 1,000 councilors.
Before Thursday’s votes, the Conservatives had been in expectation management mode, briefing journalists they would lose heavily in areas that had been in Conservative hands for years. Presumably, party officials had hoped privately that it wouldn’t be as bad as that.
The main opposition Labour Party could barely conceal its glee – the results would translate to a nine-point national lead according to PA Media. Labour boasted that the results show it would not just beat Sunak at the next election, but do so decisively.
The task ahead of Sunak is a daunting one. At most, he has until January 2025 – the last date he can legally hold an election – to turn things around. In reality, he hopes to hold the vote in the fall of next year.
The British economy is in big trouble after 13 years of Conservative government. Some of the reasons for this have been out of the government’s hands. But it was ultimately various iterations of this government that decided to erect punitive post-Brexit trade borders with Europe and propose unfunded tax cuts that caused the pound to tank.
Public services, including the much-loved National Health Service, are in a dire state. It can take weeks to arrange an appointment with your doctor and months to get a vital medical procedure.
Teachers, doctors, nurses, train drivers and workers in many other services have held strikes over pay and working conditions, with polls consistently showing that the public thinks the government is handling negotiations with unions poorly.
Immigration, one of the hottest issues in British politics for decades, is making headlines almost daily as an increasing number of migrants arrive in the UK on small boats, often arranged by criminal human trafficking gangs.
Against this backdrop, taxes are at their highest in decades and trust in Sunak’s party is low.
Fixing everything before the election is a tall order on its own. What Sunak must also do, if he’s to turn things around in just over a year, is stop his party from tearing itself apart.
The blame game for Conservative woes started last summer after its lawmakers forced Boris Johnson out of office after months of scandals – including the notorious “Partygate” scandal when officials in Downing Street were revealed to have held parties that broke Covid-19 restrictions.
Johnson loyalists insist it was a grave mistake to have removed him from office. They claim Johnson was responsible for the party winning a parliamentary majority in the 2019 general election, a victory they regard as his personal mandate. They argue that removing a man they see as the Conservative’s biggest electoral asset has blown up credibility the party might have with the public. And they blame those who ultimately made Johnson’s position untenable – including Sunak, whose resignation from Johnson’s Cabinet was arguably the final nail in his coffin – for the current mess.
The anti-Johnson cohort, meanwhile, think he trashed the reputation of the party while in office.
Partygate created the perception that the government, led by Johnson, didn’t believe the pandemic rules applied to people running the country. While Sunak and Johnson both received fines after a police investigation, Sunak emerged relatively unscathed.
There were other scandals on Johnson’s watch – from his personal financial arrangements to cronyism – that created a stench of sleaze around the Conservatives that Sunak has struggled to shake off.
These two main factions both agree that the short premiership of Liz Truss, who succeeded Johnson last summer but only managed to stay in office for 45 days, has done real damage to the Conservatives’ main electoral selling point: economic credibility. She proposed unfunded spending and tax cuts that caused the pound to fall to its lowest against the dollar since 1985, and did not survive the ensuing fallout.
Suank’s loyalists point out that Truss was team Johnson’s preferred candidate, but almost everyone in Westminster has distanced themselves from her short tenure.
Ahead of this latest set of local elections, there was concern among some in the party that poor results might cause for loud calls from the right of the party for someone to challenge Sunak. There are people who sincerely believe Johnson returning ahead of the next election would give them the best chance at victory.
However, these people are now a minority and Johnson has gone off grid, earning huge amounts of money giving speeches and writing books. But that doesn’t mean his supporters cannot still cause problems for Sunak.
Next week, a group of Conservatives broadly from the Johnson wing of the party will meet at a conference organized by the Conservative Democrat Organisation. Speakers include three of Johnson’s most loyal Cabinet ministers and one of his biggest financial supporters.
They are, it is commonly accepted, a group that believes Johnson was kicked out of office unfairly and that Sunak was imposed on them and their grassroots members by the big cheeses of the Conservative Party. Most of them have said publicly in the months since Johnson resigned that they wish he was still PM.
Right now, most of the party seems to be on message. They are downplaying the local elections and pointing out that Labour would still need a swing bigger than Tony Blair achieved in 1997 to win a majority of just one seat. They also believe that Sunak’s rise in popularity is down to the relative stability he has brought since taking over from Truss.
But if polls don’t improve dramatically, Sunak should start looking over his shoulder. The Conservative Party has developed a taste for regicide since 2016. If the economy fails to improve, if he can’t live up to his promise to “stop the boats” of migrants and if Conservative members of parliament start to fear they will suffer the same fate as those who lost their jobs in these elections, then it’s not a giant leap from mild concern to panic – and calls for a new way forward before the party is booted from power.