No threat to Sunak after local elections says Badenoch

No threat to Sunak after local elections, says Badenoch

Forecasts suggest tomorrow’s local elections could see the Conservatives lose up to half of the council seats they are defending

The Prime Minister’s position is not under threat, a Cabinet minister has said as the local election campaign enters its final day.

Forecasts suggest Thursday’s local elections could see the Conservatives lose up to half of the council seats they are defending in a contest seen as the final test of public opinion ahead of the general election.

The prospect of a major defeat has triggered speculation that such a result could push more Tory MPs into seeking to replace Rishi Sunak as leader.

But on Wednesday, Kemi Badenoch insisted that the Prime Minister was safe regardless of the outcome of the local elections.

She told Sky News: “I think there’s a lot of noise being made by people who want to get attention but the Prime Minister has the full backing of the Cabinet, he has my full backing.”

Asked whether that would be the case even if the Conservatives suffered a drubbing on Thursday, Ms Badenoch said: “I think that is right.”

The Prime Minister’s press secretary did not deny a Bloomberg report that Mr Sunak told Tory staff that they could be part of the “greatest comeback in history”, in an admission of the scale of the challenge he faces.

The press secretary said: “There is no doubt that we have work to do. It’s obviously been a really tough time for the country with Covid and Ukraine and the impact of that on inflation.

“But… I can look back at the last week, we’ve done a massive defence announcement which Labour have not matched, which means that our country would be at risk under Labour.

“We’ve done a massive welfare intervention to address the unsustainable rise in the welfare bill. And we are clearly making some progress on tackling illegal immigration.”

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

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.

Polling has 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 narrowed over the campaign.

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

Both received backing from Boris Johnson and Mr Sunak’s press secretary was asked whether the current Prime Minister was concerned about the candidates distancing themselves from the party and his leadership.

Mr Street makes minimal reference to his party allegiance on his campaign website and Mr Johnson wrote a letter which said “you might not like everything the Conservatives have done” and urged voters to “forget about the Government” and back the West Midlands mayor because of his personal record.

In a video for Lord Houchen, Mr Johnson praised his “fantastic vision” and described him as a “guy who does what he says he is going to do”.

The Prime Minister’s press secretary said Mr Sunak had been out campaigning with both candidates and welcomed Mr Johnson’s involvement.

“When you look at the absolute mess that Labour have made of Birmingham City Council, pretty much driven it to bankruptcy, it’s no surprise that Conservatives think this race is, absolutely, very important,” she said.

“You only need to look at the mess Labour previously made of Teesside which is why they are going so hard on Ben Houchen so personally because it shows them up every single day to see what he’s achieved in his time in office against their long, poor record there.”

Labour suggested the mayoral election system favours incumbents, as it sought to manage expectations about victory in the West Midlands and Tees Valley.

“If Andy Street and Ben Houchen do hang on, as seems highly likely, then it will be because they have managed to sufficiently distance themselves from the Prime Minister, not because he has provided any electoral coattails for them,” a party spokesman said.

The Opposition did however signal it was “hopeful” of winning the Blackpool South Westminster by-election, which is also taking place on Thursday night.

Political scientist Professor Sir John Curtice told the BBC’s Newsnight programme that as the Tories and Labour brace for the elections “one side is looking for hope, and the other is looking for affirmation”.

He added: “For Rishi Sunak he is trying to give his party a glimmer of hope that maybe not all is lost for the general election that we are now all expecting to happen in the autumn.

“For Sir Keir Starmer, he is in a sense looking for affirmation of the message of the opinion polls that the Labour Party is indeed so far ahead, that it looks now like… Sir Keir Starmer is likely to be the next Prime Minister.”

The Liberal Democrats, who have focused campaigning efforts in traditional Conservative areas, have said Thursday is a chance for voters to send a message to “this out-of-touch Conservative Government”.

Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey, who has visited so-called “blue wall” areas during the campaign, added: “In former Conservative heartlands like Tunbridge Wells, Dorset and Wokingham voters are switching to the Liberal Democrats after years of failure from this Conservative Government.

“Every vote for the Liberal Democrats is a vote to elect a strong local champion, who will fight for a fair deal for you and your community.”

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