It’s been a slightly odd week since the local elections. Despite the Conservatives suffering heavy losses last Thursday (4 May), the hand-wringing and searching questions were - inevitably to Rishi Sunak’s relief - cut short by celebrations for the King’s Coronation.
While the Prime Minister was front and centre of the ceremony, delivering a Bible reading, the focus stayed understandably on Charles for 72 hours. That meant the implications of last week’s vote - and what it told us about the possible result of the next general election - hadn’t fully crystallised until Parliament returned from its mini-recess on Tuesday.
Since then, we’ve learned quite a bit about what politics at Westminster might look and sound like in the coming months as the main parties vie for our support at the ballot box once again.
'A very deep hole'
Make no mistake, the Tories took a beating in the local elections - losing more than 1,000 seats and control of dozens of councils. One former Conservative adviser told me they were in a “very deep hole” with no obvious route out. Sunak admitted the results were “disappointing” but, after the Coronation, tried to move the narrative on.
He announced plans to increase access to community pharmacies in England - an announcement undermined slightly by the revelation that he used a helicopter, at taxpayers’ expense, to travel from London to Southampton (a journey that takes 75 minutes on a train) so he could have pictures taken at a chemist. Downing Street later said the helicopter was needed to make the “most effective use” of the PM’s busy schedule.
Luke Tryl, UK director of More in Common
Keir hasn’t won over people’s hearts and minds yet
As you’d expect, this led - at Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday (10 May) - to the latest claims from Labour that Sunak is out of touch with ordinary people. Sir Keir Starmer asked him to account for the loss of more than 1,000 Tory councillors - but the Prime Minister deflected with scripted retorts, not even mentioning the elections. His backbenchers - and some of his own frontbench - were noticeably muted.
That’s because there’s not a lot to cheer about, according to Luke Tryl - the UK director of More in Common, an independent think tank which regularly polls the public that was set up following the murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox.
“Whenever we do focus groups or polling, the dominant mood is exhaustion”, Tryl told me. “Far from rebuilding the 2019 coalition uniting voters in the Red and Blue Walls - largely against Jeremy Corbyn and getting Brexit done - both sides appear to be moving away from the Tories”.
Conservative strategists are pinning their hopes on progress against the five priorities Sunak set out at the start of the year: halving inflation, getting the economy growing, cutting the national debt, reducing NHS waiting lists and stopping small boat crossings across the English Channel. His immigration plans are a key dividing line with Labour and a string of opponents in the House of Lords - including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who said the idea of sending asylum seekers to Rwanda was “morally unacceptable”.
Hearts and minds
Starmer, on the other hand, has been repeatedly criticised for not being clear enough about what Labour stands for and what policies it would introduce if it got back into government. “Keir hasn’t won over people’s hearts and minds yet”, Tryl says, “and the big challenge for him is that people are ready to vote Labour, they think he’s done a good job at making the party better but they don’t think he has laid out the two or three things that would actually make their lives better”.
Figures on the left of the party are also becoming frustrated with Starmer’s reluctance to spell out clear positions on issues they think are settled. Labour voted against the Public Order Bill when it made its way through Parliament, but it passed - paving the way for the arrest of peaceful anti-monarchy campaigners during the weekend’s Coronation celebrations. Asked on Tuesday whether he’d scrap the legislation, the former Director of Public Prosecutions said it was “early days” and the law needed time to bed in.
Continuing uncertainty about what Labour is offering seems to be having an impact on voters. Polling experts including Professor Sir John Curtice - who extrapolated the local election results and looked at how they might translate to Parliamentary seats in a general election - believe Labour (who gained more than 600 councillors last week) would finish ahead of the Tories, but short of an overall majority.
It’s for this reason that Sunak tried out a new attack at PMQs - suggesting that Starmer was “busy plotting coalitions” after he repeatedly refused to rule out working with the Liberal Democrats in the event of a hung parliament. The Labour leader has categorically dismissed any notion of a coalition with the SNP, but says he won’t be drawn on “hypotheticals” when it comes to the Lib Dems.
“Voters are savvy”, Tryl says. “What the public will want to know from Keir is what criteria he’s going to apply if and when he’s going to be making the decision about whether to go into coalition because they can judge him on that. Just saying 'I’m not doing hypotheticals' looks like you’re being dodgy.”
Zack Polanski, Green Party deputy leader
I think it’s an exciting moment.
There’s also the question about whether the Liberal Democrats would take the risk of being in coalition again. After joining David Cameron in government in 2010, then leader Nick Clegg was famously forced to backtrack on his pledge to stop any increase in tuition fees and the party’s support plummeted at the next election five years later. The Lib Dems now have even fewer MPs - but polled strongly last week, gaining more than 400 councillors, and have enjoyed a number of by-election successes in recent years.
Some party grandees think coalition talks are inevitable. “You can be sure that serious, but deniable, conversations will be taking place over the next year”, wrote another former leader - Sir Vince Cable - in an article for the Comment Central website. A Lib Dem source insisted Vince didn’t “speak for the party”, adding they hoped he continued to “enjoy his retirement”.
The Green Party has also been taking stock of its local election success - making the most gains in its 50 year history and winning control of a local council - Mid-Suffolk - for the first time ever.
“The attention turns straight away to national Parliament,” its deputy leader Zack Polanski told me. The Greens have only ever had one MP in Caroline Lucas, but Polanski insists there’s a genuine prospect of growing that number at the next election.
“If you look at somewhere like Bristol West, where our co-leader Carla Denyer is standing, 17 of the 20 council seats are Green”, he says. “If you look at Waveney Valley, which is another of our target seats (and includes the Mid-Suffolk council area), we won the popular vote there, so I think it’s an exciting moment.”
If a hung Parliament came to pass, and the margins were extremely tight, would an enlarged Green Party with a handful of MPs contemplate coalition talks? “We’d consider working with any party”, Polanski confirms, “but proportional representation would be a hard red line”.
For a time yesterday, even the Conservatives themselves hadn’t ruled out coalition discussions if push came to shove - despite Sunak criticising Starmer on that very topic. Number 10 declined to comment on “speculation” about the result of the next election - before a spokesperson from Tory HQ clarified they “would not be doing a deal with any other party”.
In reality, though, the PM’s probable partners were limited to the Democratic Unionists and Laurence Fox’s self-proclaimed “anti-woke” Reclaim Party. It now has its first MP in Andrew Bridgen who defected following his expulsion from the Tories over comments he made about Covid vaccines. He plans to contest his seat under the Reclaim banner.
Now the dust has settled on the local elections, three things are clear.
Firstly, Rishi Sunak has work to do to prove to the public that they should give the Conservatives a fifth consecutive term in office.
Secondly, Keir Starmer has work to do to translate his consistent but less than rock solid lead in the opinion polls into a Parliamentary majority.
Finally, if the chatter about hung Parliaments hangs around, expect both the main parties to keep accusing the other of planning coalitions of chaos.