UK Tories suffer losses in Sunak's first electoral test
In the depths of the worst cost-of-living crisis in decades, the local council elections held across swathes of England on Thursday illuminated the main parties' standing ahead of a UK-wide general election expected next year.
Sunak admitted it was not looking good for his Tories.
"It's always disappointing to lose hard-working Conservative councillors," the prime minister told Sky News.
But addressing Conservative campaign workers in London, he saw no "massive groundswell of movement towards the Labour Party or excitement for its agenda".
Vote counting will only be complete later Friday, just as Britain gears up for Saturday's coronation of King Charles III.
But the main opposition Labour party crowed that the trend was already clear from the 230 English districts electing more than 8,000 council seats.
Labour leader Keir Starmer said the party had clinched "fantastic results across the country" in "places we need to win".
"Make no mistake, we are on course for a Labour majority at the next general election," he told cheering activists in Medway, southeast England, one of the councils seized by his party from the Tories.
At 12:20pm (1120 GMT), 74 councils had declared their results. Sunak's Conservatives had lost 262 seats - one-third of the total they were defending so far.
Transport Minister Huw Merriman indicated his party was paying the price for the chaotic weeks last year when it ditched Boris Johnson and then Liz Truss as leader in quick succession.
Local constituents have been "talking about older news about former prime ministers - but saying your current leader seems to have what it takes", he told the BBC, insisting that Sunak was on the right track.
Labour was up 148 seats. Along with Medway, it took control of other prized targets such as Plymouth in southwest England and Stoke-on-Trent in the Midlands - where in 2016, 70 percent of voters backed Brexit.
Across England, from Medway to Plymouth, Middlesbrough to Stoke, voters are backing Labour’s plan to cut the cost of living, cut waiting times and cut crime.— Keir Starmer (@Keir_Starmer) May 5, 2023
The results are clear: a better Britain with Labour is possible. pic.twitter.com/h7vFlZZeVb
Extrapolating to a national result in the next general election, Labour said its vote share lead over the Tories stood at more than eight percent - enough, it claimed, for Starmer to become prime minister.
Labour is particularly targeting former strongholds in northern England, the so-called "red wall", which Johnson turned Tory in the 2019 general election on a vow to "get Brexit done".
The smaller Liberal Democrat party was up 65 seats, and was making inroads in wealthy Conservative districts on the edge of London that are represented nationally by members of Sunak's cabinet - the "blue wall".
The centrist opposition party took control of the council in Windsor and Maidenhead, west of London, an area represented in Westminster by former Prime Minister Theresa May.
"We are exceeding all expectations," Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey said.
"We have delivered a hammer blow to the Conservative party in the blue wall ahead of next year's general election."
Jonathan Carr-West, chief executive of the Local Government Information Unit, noted that the Conservatives were already defending a dismal showing the last time the same council districts voted in 2019.
"Voters may well return to the Conservative fold" at the next general election, he told AFP.
"But yes, it's looking pretty bad for them so far. To do badly from a very bad baseline in 2019 is very, very bad indeed."
Sunak meanwhile defended a law change requiring voters to show photo identification for the first time, a move denounced by Labour and others as an attempt to suppress the vote.
The Electoral Commission vowed to review numerous reports of voters being turned away on Thursday.