The Insider

Nothing can save Sunak now

In every category of election last Thursday, there was a large swing to Labour

May 08, 2024
Ed Davey celebrating local election wins. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Ed Davey celebrating local election wins. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Rishi Sunak is heading for the rocks and the only question is the scale of the shipwreck. That is the unambiguous verdict of the byelections and local and mayoral elections held last week.

There was a large swing to Labour in every category of election. In the mayoral contests, it was mitigated by two popular Tory mayoral incumbents, Ben Houchen in Tees Valley and Andy Street in the West Midlands, who ran virtually as independents disassociated from their national party. But even they suffered swings against them, which was enough for Street to lose.

Where the Lib Dems started second in local election wards, they tended to pick up most of the anti-Tory swing. But that is little consolation for Sunak, as it points to efficient anti-Tory tactical voting that will maximise the loss of parliamentary seats later in the year, including to the Lib Dems in their southern heartlands

As a pointer, the most significant poll was probably the parliamentary byelection in Blackpool South, which the Tories lost on a 26 per cent swing to Labour in a northern seat they had won in 2019. Nigel Farage’s Reform party nearly snatched second place. The scale of the swing to Labour was in line with a string of byelections in the past two years, suggesting that nothing has fundamentally changed in recent months.

The rise of Reform, which promises to stand nationwide in the general election, makes matters even worse for Sunak. In 2019, the Brexit Party (as Reform was then called) did not stand against most sitting Tory MPs.

Of course, swings on this scale to Labour and Reform would almost entirely wipe out the Tories if replicated in a general election. But taking all last Thursday’s results together, a substantial swing to Labour looks unstoppable, with Reform costing the Tories yet more votes and the Lib Dems also doing well in their traditional stomping grounds.

Sunak obviously didn’t believe his own spin that the results pointed to a hung parliament, or he would have called an election immediately to capitalise on his good fortune. In truth, he has now practically run out of road, and is clinging on until the autumn in the desperate hope that something turns up.

But it is hard to see what could turn up in the next six months which might materially help him. Maybe a further national insurance cut will be attempted, but the last one didn’t gain the Tories any popularity. It is far more likely that new developments will simply worsen Sunak’s plight, as the cost-of-living crisis persists and NHS waiting lists fail to reduce.

It is a particular mystery to me why Sunak believes that a few flights to Rwanda will make much difference. Even if the flights happen, they will simply highlight the escalating scale of post-Brexit immigration, now running at more than a million a year. For voters concerned about small boats and large-scale immigration, this is hardly going to make them more pro-Tory. But if the flights are botched, which is highly likely, then the reaction will be worse still.