Sunak stands firm: Rishi says he is 'focused on the job at hand' despite 'worst local election results for 40 years'

3 May 2024, 12:15 | Updated: 3 May 2024, 12:18

Rishi Sunak insisted he is focused on the job at hand despite the election results
Rishi Sunak insisted he is focused on the job at hand despite the election results. Picture: Alamy

By Kit Heren

Rishi Sunak has vowed that he is "focused on the job at hand" despite his party enduring its worst set of local election results in 40 years.

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The Prime Minister has been beset by rumours about a leadership challenge recently, amid poor polling numbers ahead of a general election in the coming months.

A dismal local election showing has piled pressure on Mr Sunak - but he insisted on Friday morning that he was working to "deliver" for the country.

He said: "Obviously it's disappointing to lose good, hard-working Conservative councillors, and I'm grateful to them for all their service in local government."

Mr Sunak said that there were many results still to come, and said the Tees Valley mayoral race - where incumbent Conservative Ben Houchen is set to see off Labour - was an "important test".

He said: "I'm focused completely on the job at hand - that's delivering for people across the country."

As well as losing several local authorities and dozens of council seats, the Conservatives also lost the Blackpool South constituency to Labour in a by-election.

Polling expert Sir John Curtice told LBC that the results were "probably... one of the worst, if not the worst, Conservative performance in local government elections for the last 40 years."

Earlier, the Conservative party chairman Richard Holden told LBC's Nick Ferrari that the election results were "difficult".

But Mr Holden said that his party should keep Mr Sunak in Downing Street, despite rumblings of discontent from backbenchers and a rumoured plan to replace him with Penny Mordaunt if the local elections went badly.

Asked by Nick if he thought that the Prime Minister should remain in post, he said "very much so", listing off the recent global and domestic problems faced by the government.

"I genuinely think while we’re facing those tough challenges we’ve got the right man for the job," he said.

Read more: Tories in trouble as Labour wins by-election and takes 'home of British Army' while Reform sees surge in votes across UK

Read more: Local Elections Live 2024: Tories face worst election results in 40 years as Labour celebrate Red Wall win in Blackpool

Watch Again: Nick Ferrari quizzes Tory Party Chairman Richard Holden

"People aren’t voting in these local elections in the general election - they’re not voting to change the government of the country," he said.

With around a third of council elections declared, the Conservatives have lost about 100 seats, and ceded control of several local authorities to Labour - including Thurrock and Rushmoor.

In the Blackpool South constituency, Labour secured a majority of 7,607. It was the third biggest swing from the Conservatives to Labour at a by-election since the Second World War.

Labour's victory in Rushmoor - known as "the home of the British Army" - came despite it being run by the Tories for the past 24 years.

Labour set for 'comfortable majority' at next election, polling expert declares

Mr Holden said that the results were "not good" for the Conservative party.

He added: "I’ve been out campaigning with a lot of our Conservative campaigners and candidates around the country - a lot of them will be feeling pretty bruised this morning.

"These are a difficult set of election results, coming off 2021 [which] was a very high watermark, when we gained seats in government after 11 years.

"But for those guys on the ground, many of whom have put their heart and souls into this, it’s going to be a very tough couple of days…"

Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak leaves 10 Downing Street
Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak leaves 10 Downing Street. Picture: Alamy

The Conservatives retained control of Harlow and Fareham councils, and Mr Holden said there were "some mixed results".

"I think there’s still a long way to go..." he said. "Keir Starmer took a lot of store by taking Harlow and he visited there a couple of times during the campaign."

He also pointed out that the local election turnouts were low, and claimed that in a general election more people would vote for his party.

In Blackpool South, the Conservatives only held off Reform by around 100 votes to take second place. Reform UK's leader Richard Tice said his party had "rapidly become the real opposition to Labour, whether it's in the North, the Midlands, we know it's the case in Wales".

Richard Holden
Richard Holden. Picture: Alamy

But Mr Holden denied that the right-wing party were a serious threat.

"All a vote reform does is help Keir Starmer and the Labour Party," he said.

Last time Mr Holden was on Nick's show, he said that he had yet to find a seat for the general election - and this was still the case as of Friday morning.

He maintained that he definitely wanted to stand in the election. "I will be going for one, but I am still to find one," he said. "We shall see - you’ll be the first to know when I get one," he told Nick.

Newly elected Labour MP Chris Webb, with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer celebrating at Blackpool Cricket Club
Newly elected Labour MP Chris Webb, with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer celebrating at Blackpool Cricket Club. Picture: Alamy

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the Blackpool win was "the most important result today".

"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," he said.

"The swing towards the Labour Party in Blackpool South is truly historic and shows that we are firmly back in the service of working people.

"I am so proud of the positive campaign we ran. To those who have put their trust in us in Blackpool, and those considering giving Labour their vote, we are ready to serve your interests.

"Our new Labour MP Chris Webb has shown that after years of neglect with the Tories, there is a better alternative. The message to Rishi Sunak is clear. It’s time for change, it’s time for a general election."

Elections expert Professor Sir John Curtice said: "The only thing that's stopped this result from being basically an unmitigated disaster for the Conservatives was the fact they just narrowly squeaked ahead of Reform."

He added: "Basically the project that Rishi Sunak is meant to be there to achieve, which is to narrow the gap on Labour, that project still has yet to provide any visible benefit."

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