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Sunak is safe in his position for now but the Tory party is in no state to fight a general election
7 May 2023, 18:30
On my local election overnight show on Friday morning I remember saying that all successful prime ministers need to be lucky generals, as Napoleon might have put it.
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I claimed that Rishi Sunak was indeed a very lucky general given that by Friday evening the whole news agenda would move on to blanket coverage of the King’s coronation, and that commentary on the local election results would more or less stop.
I wasn’t wrong.
You have to get to page 49 in today’s Mail on Sunday before there is any mention of news that isn’t related to the Coronation.
The Sunday Times does slightly better with news and commentary on the local elections on page 14.
In addition, tomorrow is a bank holiday and by Tuesday we’ll all have moved onto Eurovision. Well, at least some of us will…
These weren’t easy elections to predict, but, for once, most of the pundits (including me, I’m relieved to say) got it more or less spot on.
By the time I handed over to Nick Ferrari at 6am only around 15% of the votes had been counted but it was already clear to me that the Tories would be heading for losses in excess of 1,000.
My other prediction, that the Greens would do well, was also bang on. They managed to gain 250 seats, only 100 fewer than the Liberal Democrats.
The Greens have become the receptacle of the so-called ‘plague on all your houses’ vote, which the Lib Dems used to clear up.
They even managed to gain control of Mid Suffolk Council, and they took many seats off the Conservatives in the south-east.
On the face of it, Labour did well, but there are one or two caveats. Yes, they won back control of several councils (like Medway) that they hadn’t won in years. Winning back Stoke was symbolically important as that city has become emblematic of the Red Wall.
In other places, local issues played a part rather than any enthusiasm for Keir Starmer.
The tree-murdering Conservatives in Plymouth did well to hang on to any seats whatsoever, but Plymouth has always been one of those places that swings with the prevailing electoral winds.
The trouble for Labour is that other areas that tend to do the same didn’t fall to them this time.
Places like Harlow, Peterborough and Great Yarmouth all need to swing back to Labour if they are to get any sort of majority.
Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves visited Great Yarmouth this week and it had no effect whatsoever. Labour gained a total of one whole seat. In 1997 many five figure Tory majorities were swept away.
The lesson from many of the results in these council elections is that Labour are not in a position to win back seats like Great Yarmouth, Redditch, Chatham and Aylesford and dozens of others.
The prospect of a hung parliament, with Labour as the largest party is something gaining traction in discussions at Islington dinner parties. Ed Davey is having to face questions about what demands he would make in any coalition discussions.
All this is music to Rishi Sunak’s ears. The more talk there is about grubby back room coalition deals the better, from his point of view.
Despite turbulent political and economic waters the polls show signs of slightly tightening. I still don’t believe he has time to turn it around, either politically or economically, but although this round of council election results were dreadful, he is safe in his position and there will be no challenge to him.
He might indeed be more optimistic about his prospects than he was when he was elected.
One issue that dogs his campaigning abilities is the hollowing out of Conservative Campaign HQ. Virtually all the people with real campaigning experience have been let go.
The press and media operation has been hollowed out to such an extent that it is barely functioning. That needs rectifying and it needs rectifying immediately.
The party operation is in no state to fight a general election and provide the necessary campaigning support for local parties. This can only be because the fundraising isn’t going well, and that spells real trouble.
As Lynton Crosby memorably said: “You can’t fatten a pig on market day.”
You can win an election campaign in a marginal seat in a four-week election campaign. And a marginal seat nowadays is any seat with a majority of under 10,000.
So many Tory MPs are standing down that some local parties are getting nervous, even with five figure majorities, especially in Lib Dem facing Home Counties Blue Wall seats.
Anyway, talking of Eurovision…