Subscriber OnlyUK

‘There is an anti-establishment mood’: Tory peer and elections guru Robert Hayward on upcoming local elections

UK prime minister Rishi Sunak will cop heavy flak if the Tories flop in council and mayoral votes next month

While most people in Britain look forward to the heat of summer, prime minister Rishi Sunak will hope to keep the temperature down in his restive Conservative party. The stability of his position has long been linked to the damage the party ships in local elections due on May 2nd, when Tories fear for half of their councillors.

There is now a fresh threat on the horizon for Sunak: mayoral elections on the same day. Recent polling by Redfield & Wilton put high-profile Tory mayor for the West Midlands area that includes Birmingham, Andy Street, 14 points behind his Labour challenger. In desperation this week, he ditched Conservative party branding from his campaign, citing voter anger at Tory chaos in Westminster. There are now fears among Conservatives that Ben Houchen, their mayor of the Tees Valley area around Middlesborough, could also be in danger.

Westminster Tories believe a loss for either of these long-serving mayors, in regions crucial for the Tories electorally, will mean Sunak’s hope for cooler heads over summer may go unheeded. If both lose, an attempted heave against him by Tory MPs through a no-confidence motion may become irresistible.

Lord Robert Hayward, a Tory peer and former MP famed for his accurate electoral predictions, insists it is just a “noisy minority” of MPs who want Sunak out. Yet regardless of the results, he also believes it is inevitable that the May 2nd elections will lead to agitating by some for a new prime minister in advance of the UK general election expected later this year.


He told The Irish Times this week there is no base levels of results that the Tories could hit that would keep the agitators quiet: “There is no such barrier in some of these people’s minds.”

Hayward believes only the geopolitical risk of a wider conflagration of war in, for example, the Middle East might convince some agitators to keep quiet. “In that scenario, there might be a sense that in the middle of an international crisis, it just wouldn’t be appropriate to challenge a prime minister.”

There are more than 2,600 council seats up on May 2nd across 107 councils in England, including swathes of positions in big urban areas such as Newcastle and London. Among more than 10 mayoral elections, Labour’s London mayor Sadiq Khan is up against Tory challenger Susan Hall. But Conservative sources privately expect her to fall well short. There are also elections for police commissioners across England and Wales. There are no votes in Scotland or Northern Ireland.

Hayward says the council seats up next month fall predominantly in “Labour territory”. The last time these seats were contested, in 2021, the Tories under Boris Johnson polled unusually well due to a Covid “vaccine bounce”.

“But that still only put them on parity with Labour,” Hayward says. His analysis shows the Tories are defending a total of 919 seats, Labour 928 and the Liberal Democrats 415, with the rest held by independents and smaller parties.

Savanta polling in 2021 put the Tories nationally at that time on 42 per cent and Labour on 34 per cent. Now, Savanta has the Tories on just 25 per cent and Labour on 43 per cent. Throw in the impact of the elevated “vaccine bounce” position that the Tories are defending, and the potential disaster that awaits Sunak on May 2nd is clear. Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher, two other well-known election analysts from the University of Plymouth, say the Tories might lose 500 seats.

Much has been made of the rise in national polls of the right-wing, anti-immigrant, Nigel Farage-linked Reform UK party, which grew out of the entrails of the old Brexit Party and, before that, the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip).

Hayward, however, believes he sees “organisational weakness” in the way Reform has set up for the May 2nd locals. It is putting up candidates for barely one in eight of the local authority seats, lower than the old contestation rates of Ukip and the Brexit Party. This is even though the nomination rules have been tweaked this year to make it easier for smaller parties.

There was much mirth around the Westminster political scene last week when it emerged that Reform had dropped its York candidate, Tommy Cawkwell, for not responding to calls or emails. It turned out Cawkwell was actually dead.

“It is striking how weak they are [in the locals]. They are putting up full slates in some areas, and none in others,” says Hayward.

He warns it is difficult to read too much into the national picture from local authority elections, and vice versa. But he expects a general “anti-establishment mood” to have a bearing on the May 2nd results. But he says this could benefit the Green Party and, in come areas, the Liberal Democrats, just as much as it boosts Reform next month.

Hayward, who was a Tory MP for almost a decade in the 1980s and 1990s, is also wary of the potential impact on Labour’s vote of Muslims anger at the party’s handling of its response to the war in Gaza. More than 80 per cent of British Muslims voted Labour at the last general election. Yet in areas such as Burnley, where the Muslim population touches one-third, not a single candidate of Asian ethnicity is standing for the party on May 2nd.

Hayward says that if the big mayoral elections go better for the Tories than expected, and if they also unexpectedly keep control of a few councils such as Dudley in the West Midlands, then May 2nd might be the sort of crash landing from which Sunak could yet walk away relatively unharmed.

A more dire performance, however, and the prime minister’s position could be under threat. In that scenario, some believe he might even be tempted to call a snap election for June or July to staunch the damage.

  • Sign up for push alerts and have the best news, analysis and comment delivered directly to your phone
  • Find The Irish Times on WhatsApp and stay up to date
  • Our In The News podcast is now published daily – Find the latest episode here