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Will Rishi Sunak be crushed by the May 2 local elections?

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Rishi Sunak faces a daunting test on May 2 when voters in England and Wales go to the polls in a crucial set of local elections, with polling suggesting his Conservatives are heading for a crushing defeat.

Some Tory MPs believe the prime minister could face a no-confidence vote if the party crashes, particularly if the party loses two crucial mayoralties — West Midlands and Tees Valley — on top of heavy losses elsewhere.

“If we lose 500 seats and both the mayoralties, he’s in trouble,” said one Tory grandee. A former cabinet member added: “If that happens, there will be a confidence vote. He’d survive, but he’d be seriously weakened.”

The speculation at Westminster among Tory and Labour MPs is that Sunak could call a snap general election in June, rather than face a humiliating challenge to his leadership.

Where are the elections taking place?

Elections are taking place in 107 local authorities in England with more than 2,600 council seats up for grabs, while voters will also elect mayors in London and in 10 other places outside the capital.

The mayoral contests will largely take place in solidly Labour areas including London, Greater Manchester, Liverpool and the East Midlands as well as in Tory-held West Midlands and Tees Valley.

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In addition, all voters in England and Wales will be able to cast ballots to elect 37 police and crime commissioners. There are no elections in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Separately, the Conservatives are defending a 3,690 majority in a parliamentary by-election in Blackpool South, a seat vacated by Tory MP Scott Benton after a lobbying scandal. Labour expects to win easily.

How is it looking for the Conservatives?

Bad. The last time most of these contests were fought was in May 2021 when then-prime minister Boris Johnson was boosted by the increased national optimism that followed the introduction of Covid-19 vaccines.

On that occasion the Conservatives won a national equivalent vote share of 40 per cent. The Financial Times election poll tracker has the Tories now on 23.6 per cent. The party has a long way to fall and hundreds of seats could be lost.

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Meanwhile, Labour only won 30 per cent of the national vote share in 2021 — Sir Keir Starmer’s leadership of the opposition party was in question at the time — but the party now averages 43.5 per cent in the polls.

The Conservatives are defending 899 seats, Labour 933, and the Liberal Democrats 405.

Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher, local election gurus at University of Plymouth, wrote last month that the Tories could lose 500 seats if the party repeats its poor 2023 local election performance, when its national vote share fell below 30 per cent.

Which are the contests to watch?

Two mayoral contests are obsessing Conservatives: West Midlands and Tees Valley. Both areas are represented by high-profile Tory mayors and are being heavily targeted by Labour.

Andy Street, former John Lewis managing director, has run the West Midlands since 2017 when the mayoralty was established. But a Redfield and Wilton poll this week put Labour’s Richard Parker on 42 points, 14 points ahead of Street on 28.

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Labour strategists are confident of winning the West Midlands but believe Tory mayor Lord Ben Houchen could cling on in Tees Valley, an industrial region in north-east England that has been showered with government support. If Houchen wins, expect Sunak to make a beeline to the area on May 3.

Polls suggest that Sadiq Khan should easily hold on for a third term as London’s Labour mayor, the biggest single prize up for grabs on May 2. If Labour wins London, West Midlands and Tees Valley, Sunak will be in serious trouble.

What is next for Sunak if the Tories go into meltdown?

One Tory grandee said: “If we lose 500 seats but hold on to West Midlands and Tees Valley, that would be a surprise on the upside. Lose 500 seats and the mayoralties and that would be a different question.”

Tory rebels, some of them loyal to Johnson or to ex-premier Liz Truss, may try to engineer a vote of no confidence to topple Sunak. It would take 53 Tory MPs to trigger such a vote.

“I’m not sure there are 50 of my colleagues mad enough to do it,” said one former cabinet member. Others are not so sure. Sunak would expect to survive a no-confidence vote, but it would leave the party looking even more divided and could doom the Tories to general election defeat.

One option being discussed by Tory MPs is that Sunak could staunch the wound and call a June general election, before party infighting gets even worse. Sunak’s allies say he ideally wants to hold on until the autumn, in the expectation that better economic news will feed through to voters.

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