Polls close in local elections with Rishi Sunak braced for Tory losses

Rishi Sunak is braced for a difficult set of election results which could increase pressure on his leadership of the Conservative Party and the country after polls closed on Thursday night.

Forecasts suggest the Tories could lose up to half of the council seats they are defending in England, with Chancellor Jeremy Hunt saying the party expects to suffer “significant losses”.

With a general election expected later this year, the results from council, mayoral and police and crime commissioner contests and the Blackpool South parliamentary by-election will be closely scrutinised for signs of whether Labour’s national opinion poll leads can be turned into electoral success.

London Mayoral election
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and his wife Victoria leave the polling station in his Holborn and St Pancras constituency, north London, after casting their votes (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Most of the council seats up for re-election in England were last contested in 2021, at the peak of Boris Johnson’s popularity as the Covid-19 vaccine was rolled out.

While the Blackpool South by-election and some council results are expected in the early hours of Friday, the final declarations will not come until Sunday.

A total of 11 mayoral contests are also taking place, including for the London mayoralty between frontrunners, Labour incumbent Sadiq Khan and Tory challenger Susan Hall.

London Mayoral election
Sadiq Khan with his wife Saadiya Khan and dog Luna visited a polling station in south London (Yui Mok/PA)

Conservative mayors Andy Street in the West Midlands and Tees Valley’s Ben Houchen are also facing key re-election battles, with polls suggesting tough fights with their Labour opponents.

Forecasts have consistently put Mr Khan ahead of Ms Hall, with a poll published on Wednesday by Savanta giving him a 10-point advantage after his lead tapered over the campaign.

Both main parties have sought to manage expectations ahead of polling day, with Mr Hunt acknowledging governments can get “punished” in local votes.

Local elections
Conservative London mayoral candidate Susan Hall (Shiv Gupta/PA)

He told Sky News’ Politics Hub: “We are expecting to see significant losses. That often happens in local elections.”

Tory peer and polling expert Lord Hayward said: “I expect the Tories to lose upwards of 400 seats.”

But he suggested that Mr Sunak’s position was not in immediate jeopardy.

“In recent days I have been left with the very clear impression that, amongst Tory MPs, the ‘let’s have a leadership election’ balloon has been substantially deflated,” he said.

However, “an audible, very small, group will disagree and probably do so early”.

Meanwhile, Labour said the mayoral system favours incumbents, though Sir Keir Starmer is “hopeful” of success in the West Midlands.

Conservative wins for both Mr Street and Mr Houchen would offer the Tories a ray of light in what could be a dismal set of results but experts warned the metro mayor races would be the “least reliable indicator” of what could happen at a general election.

Both candidates received backing from Mr Johnson and appear to have distanced themselves from their party allegiance throughout campaigning.

Polling expert Professor Sir John Curtice said the Conservative Party was emphasising the two contests “because they think they might manage to win the contest and therefore they’ll be able to cover whatever disasters happen elsewhere”.

“Because of the personal votes of these two, (these contests are) going to be the least reliable indicator,” he said.

“Equally, conversely here in London, Sadiq Khan will not do as well as the Labour Party would do in a general election because Sadiq has a negative personal vote. But this city is now so strong Labour, he’s going to win anyway,” he said.

A source close to Mr Khan said they expected a “close” result in London.

Voters across England and Wales were also choosing who will serve as police and crime commissioners.

Labour’s national campaign co-ordinator Pat McFadden said: “The most important election of the night is the historic by-election in Blackpool, caused by yet more Tory chaos and scandal. It’s the only election today where voters have had the opportunity to directly reject Rishi Sunak’s party in Westminster.

“It’s going to be a long night and the full picture of results from local elections may not be clear until over the weekend, but we expect to see Labour gains that show we’re making progress in the places we need to win the next general election.”

Labour sources are confident of victory in Blackpool South, with activists said to have reported large numbers of former Tory voters saying they would back Labour for the first time.

The Liberal Democrats, who have focused campaigning efforts in traditional Conservative areas, said polling day was a moment for the Prime Minister to “face the music”.

Sir Ed Davey said the results would be a “damning verdict on record waiting lists, sewage destroying rivers, and the worst cost-of-living crisis in a generation”.

“The country knows the buck stops at the door of Downing Street,” he said.

The relatively new requirement for voters to show photographic identification continued to cause problems, including for Mr Johnson, who as prime minister introduced the changes.

He was turned away while attempting to cast his ballot in South Oxfordshire, where a police and crime commissioner for the Thames Valley is being elected, Sky News reported.

But a spokesman said he returned to the polling stations with the correct identification and voted Conservative.

The Government said it intends to make veterans’ ID cards a valid form of voter identification after former service personnel were turned away from polling stations.

Veterans minister Johnny Mercer apologised to those who had been unable to use their veterans’ ID card to vote in the local elections on Thursday, vowing to “do all I can” to have it added to the list of valid identification.