The media might be focused on Labour, but it’s the Tories on the road to perdition
I don't tend to feel pity for politicians. They have, after all, chosen their line of work, and it's a career based largely on rejection. But even the hardest-hearted might have spared a thought for Rishi Sunak last week as he watched the local election results roll in.
Never mind whether Labour has done 'well enough' by the pundits' standards. It's quite remarkable that a party that gained more than 500 seats and several key target councils is now under scrutiny for whether it might fail to scrape a majority in 18 months' time - but that is the British media for you.
Instead, the overwhelming tale of the 2023 local elections, and the one that matters objectively for organisations engaged in medium- to long-term planning, is this: the Conservatives lost. They lost extremely badly. And they lost everywhere.
The governing party is watching its 2019 electoral coalition - such an unusual combination of true-blue heartlands and Leave-voting cultural conservatives - slowly torn apart before its eyes. With BBC projections indicating a Conservative vote share of 26% alongside the confirmed loss of more than 1,000 councillors, the low bar set by MPs and strategists in the run-up to polling day to 'manage expectations' turned out to be nowhere near low enough.
But it isn't as simple as the party's support retrenching to its traditional safe havens. Labour victories in places as far apart as East Staffordshire and Medway (Kent), and Lib Dem victories spanning South Hams (Devon), Windsor and Maidenhead (Berkshire), and Stratford-on-Avon (West Midlands), show that the Conservatives haven't just lost ground in the new territory staked out by Boris Johnson in 2019. It's happening in the most comfortable of Conservative surroundings.
There's a clear trend of support being lost in seats held by senior Tories, whether or not they are personally associated with the whiff of scandal, corruption, or disrepute. That Lib Dem Stratford victory is attached near-umbilically to the sacking of the disgraced Nadhim Zahawi from the Cabinet after his run-in with the taxman. But Surrey Heath, where the relatively respected Michael Gove is the local MP, saw a huge victory for the yellowy golds. In what is traditionally the bluest of blue counties, the Conservatives now only have one council where they retain a majority.
It is no surprise, then, that Tory MPs are looking over their shoulders. And still less of a surprise that those who remain touchingly loyal to former prime ministers are becoming more willing to shed doubt on Rishi Sunak's ability to get the party moving forward again.
The deep internal wounds of the 2016-2022 period were stapled shut for a time, but it looks like they are reopening. Whether that ultimately leads to vengeance is another matter, but one thing is clear: bleating on about a new 'coalition of chaos' is not going to deal with the stark differences of opinion in the party and its membership about tax rates, Net Zero, and what government is ultimately for.
Tom King is a director at Lodestone. To contact him about how your organisation should be planning for the future, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.