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Rishi Sunak on rack as Tory election losses mount -Dlight News

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Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives were on the rack on Friday after the party suffered heavy losses in local elections across England and Wales and was trounced by Labour in the Blackpool South parliamentary by-election.

Overnight results in the last big test before a general election expected this year suggested the UK’s governing party could lose half the council seats it was defending.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the 26 per cent swing to his party in Blackpool was “seismic”, as Sunak’s leadership of the Tories came under renewed pressure.

Sunak is struggling to hold on to power and maintain a grip on a party that often appears exhausted after being in office since 2010, and is still suffering the after-effects of Liz Truss’s disastrous shortlived premiership.

But early signs were that rightwing Conservative critics of Sunak would pull back from trying to topple him. “A strong ‘stay calm’ message is going around the WhatsApp groups,” said one former cabinet minister.

Dame Andrea Jenkyns, a Boris Johnson supporter who submitted a no-confidence letter in Sunak last November, told the BBC: “It’s looking unlikely that the MPs are going to put the letters in. So we’ve got to pull together.”

Tory chair Richard Holden insisted that Sunak was safe. “The prime minister is going to lead the party into the general election, there’s no doubt about that,” he said.

The prime minister’s allies are confident the Conservatives can hold on to the key mayoralty of Tees Valley — the result is due on Friday lunchtime — to calm nerves. Lord Ben Houchen, the local mayor, is a popular local figure.

Projections that the Conservatives could lose half the council seats they held were based on results in 35 of the 107 councils being contested; some voters in England and Wales were also electing mayors as well as police and crime commissioners.

Sir John Curtice, the veteran elections expert, said the results were “not far short” of catastrophic for the Conservatives and “one of the worst, if not the worst” result for the party in local elections for 40 years.

Starmer’s overnight focus was on Labour’s parliamentary by-election victory, where the new MP, Chris Webb, beat the Conservatives’ David Jones with a 26 per cent swing. Reform UK came a narrow third, just 117 votes behind the Conservatives.

“This seismic win in Blackpool South is the most important result today,” Starmer said. “This is the one contest where voters had the chance to send a message to Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives directly, and that message is an overwhelming vote for change.”

Labour’s victory in Blackpool South was its third-biggest swing against the Conservatives in a postwar by-election and is ominous for Tory MPs defending similar working-class seats in the “red wall” of northern England.

Labour overturned a Tory majority of 3,690 votes to take the parliamentary seat with a 7,607 majority. The seat was formerly held by Scott Benton, who was forced to quit in a lobbying scandal.

Reform UK, formerly the Brexit party, secured 17 per cent of the vote in Blackpool South, one of the races it focused on, after standing candidates for only 12 per cent of contested council seats.

The fact that Reform UK, founded by Nigel Farage, did not come second will be one crumb of comfort for Tory strategists, although its performance was another reminder of how it is splitting the vote on the right.

A Conservative spokesperson said: “What has been clear is that a vote for Reform is a vote for Sir Keir Starmer.”

It was not all good news for Labour. The party lost control of Oldham council in Greater Manchester, after ceding several seats to independents who stood on a pro-Palestine platform. It also lost seats in Newcastle.

Pat McFadden, Labour’s elections co-ordinator, admitted that the Gaza war was costing the party votes. “There’s no denying this is a factor in some parts of the country,” he said.

The Conservatives also narrowly held on to power in Harlow in Essex, a Conservative-Labour battleground seat. A Tory figure claimed the result showed there was “absolutely no love for Keir Starmer”.

As counting continued, Labour had made net gains of 58 council seats against 96 Tory losses. The Liberal Democrats and Greens had also made advances with nine and 13 new seats, respectively.

About a third of the councils holding elections counted results overnight and posted them in the early hours of Friday.

The first mayoral election results, for the East Midlands, North East, Tees Valley, and York and North Yorkshire, will be announced at about lunchtime on Friday, while results from London and the West Midlands will be declared on Saturday.

A Conservative victory in either or both of the Tees Valley and West Midlands mayoralties will be seized on by Sunak to try to reassure his restive party.

Number 10 has been on alert for the possibility that more Tory MPs will submit letters of no confidence in his leadership; 52 would trigger a confidence vote.

Put your questions to George Parker and colleagues at a webinar for FT subscribers on Wednesday 8 May 1300-1400 UK (GMT+1). Register at ft.com/ukwebinar

Video: Sketchy Politics: can anything save Sunak?

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