Last week’s local elections in most of England, except the UK capital London, resulted in a severe defeat for the ruling Conservative Party.
It was the first electoral test for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who came to power last October. Sunak followed two predecessors, Liz Truss and Boris Johnson, both of whom were forced to resign after a series of disasters. Sunak promised to “detoxify” the party and regain the voters’ trust. But his message does not seem to have got through as desired.
The ruling party lost more than 1,000 council seats across most of England. Though the opposition Labour Party, led by Sir Keir Starmer, gained many of the seats that the Conservatives lost, it was not the main beneficiary.
Around half of the lost Conservative seats went to Labour. But the Liberal Democrats (Lib Dems) and other smaller parties won the rest of what the ruling party lost.
The Lib Dems snatched council seats from the Conservatives, but the highest achiever in the room was the smaller Green Party, which added more council seats than expected. Even so, the ruling Conservatives suffered a humiliating defeat in the elections. What this will mean for the incumbent prime minister remains to be seen and is currently being debated across the UK.
Sunak faces three scenarios after this electoral defeat: a miraculous improvement in the economy with inflation going down and people’s living conditions getting better; a revolt by his own MPs to oust him and change the leadership; or a further deterioration of the party as a whole due to internal and external factors.
The last scenario looks most likely, according to many political analysts.
Miracles are no longer a viable option, and though Sunak has steadied the economy after the disastrous six weeks of Truss’ rule, the UK is still the worst performing economy among its peers. According to the latest outlook report on the UK by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the country’s economy is expected to shrink by -0.3 per cent this year whilst the Russian economy will grow by 0.7 per cent.
Some die-hard Johnson allies in the party are regrouping to stage a parliamentary coup against Sunak. According to the Guardian newspaper this week, the Johnsonites are “congregating around the newly formed Conservative Democratic Organisation (CDO), presided over by donor Peter Cruddas and backed by the former home secretary Priti Patel.”
It is not clear if they can gather enough support within the party to reinstate Johnson, however. This is not only because of Johnson’s disastrous behaviour that tarnished politics in the UK as a whole, but also because many of the party’s MPs fear a change of leadership, with the potential of making a defeat in the general elections next year more humiliating.
Whatever happens, it appears that the Conservatives are not likely to be ruling Britain next year. After more than a decade in power, people are likely to vote for changing the government altogether rather than making alterations and adjustments to it.
After the local elections results, the satellite TV channel Sky News projected next year’s general elections results based on the attitude of voters. The analysis done by a team of experts said Labour’s vote share was projected to lie between 36 to 38 per cent, with the Conservatives between 28 to 30 per cent, the Lib Dems with 18 per cent, and others standing at 17 per cent.
Thus, though Labour will have the largest number of MPs, it will fall short of a majority to form a government. Sky News said that “Sir Keir’s Labour also failed to make real inroads in places he’ll need at the next general election,” concluding that the Labour leader “still has a mountain to climb to secure a majority.”
Some analysts, even commentators close to the opposition, admit that even as the Conservatives are going to be defeated in next year’s general elections, Labour will not have a clear majority.
That will almost certainly lead to what is known as a “hung parliament” where the largest party does not have an absolute majority. In this case, Labour might have to form a minority government with the Lib Dems.
Previous examples of coalition governments in the UK that included the latter are not promising, however. In 2010, when former UK prime minister David Cameron led the Conservatives to win the elections, he allied with the Lib Dem leader at the time, Nick Clegg. It was not long before the coalition faltered, and Clegg left frontline politics altogether.
According to the projections, Labour might have an eight per cent lead over the Conservatives in a general election. But to secure a clear majority, it needs to increase the gap to more than double that.
Whether Starmer has the appeal to convince the British people that he is the best choice to lead the country is in some doubt. The Labour leader still has to convince some of his own party of his credentials.
A version of this article appears in print in the 11 May, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly