UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has admitted the Conservatives endured a “tough night” as his party lost major London authorities to the opposition Labour Party after Britain went to the polls.
On Friday, he began facing a backlash from local Tory leaders as his party suffered setbacks across England, including key heartland seats such as the borough of Wandsworth in London which it had held for decades. Labour also took Westminster and Barnet in the capital.
Ed Davey, leader of the liberal Democrats, an opposition party that tries to claim the centre ground between Conservatives and Labour, said the local elections show his party could seize Conservative stronghold “Blue Wall” seats at the next election.
In Scotland, the Scottish Nationalist Party had the biggest win, with the Tories third behind Labour. In Wales, Conservatives lost the only council it controlled. In Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein, a party that wants the reunification of Ireland, appear to be doing well as the first results were confirmed.
Despite Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour Party strengthening its grip on the capital, the party was hit by news hours later that the police are now investigating him over allegations he broke Covid-19 rules.
The Labour leader has come under pressure since footage emerged of him drinking with colleagues in April 2021 in Durham while campaigning for the Hartlepool by-election.
There had been repeated calls for him to be investigated following the prime minster's fine over the “partygate” scandal.
As Labour took key London seats, Mr Johnson said he took full responsibility for the results.
“It is midterm, it’s certainly a mixed set of results,” he said.
“We had a tough night in some parts of the country but on the other hand, in other parts of the country, you are still seeing Conservatives going forward and making quite remarkable gains in places that haven’t voted Conservative for a long time, if ever.”
Early overnight results have gone against the prime minister's party, with the Conservatives braced for even more bad news as counting continues throughout Friday in many counties across England, Scotland and Wales.
It comes as Labour took Wandsworth, a low-tax Conservative stronghold since 1978 and famously Margaret Thatcher’s favourite blue council, and Westminster for the first time since its creation in 1964.
It was part of a trend in the British capital in which voters used the elections to express anger over the rising cost of living and on the prime minister breaking his own Covid-19 lockdown rules.
The overall tally due later on Friday will offer the most important snapshot of public opinion since Mr Johnson won the Conservative Party's biggest majority in more than 30 years in the 2019 general election.
The ballot is the first electoral test for Mr Johnson since he became the first British leader in living memory to have broken the law while in office.
He was fined last month for attending a birthday gathering in his office in 2020, breaking social distancing rules then in place to curb the spread of Covid-19.
As dozens of Tory councillors lost their seats, some local Conservative leaders criticised the prime minister.
John Mallinson, leader of Carlisle City Council, hit out after Labour took control of the new Cumberland authority that will replace it.
“I think it is not just partygate, there is the integrity issue,” he told the BBC.
“I just don’t feel people any longer have the confidence that the prime minister can be relied upon to tell the truth.”
In Portsmouth, where the Tories lost four seats, Simon Bosher, the leader of the Conservative group, said Mr Johnson should “take a good, strong look in the mirror” because “those are people that are actually bearing the brunt on the doorstep of behaviour of what’s been going on in Westminster”.
Ravi Govindia, now the former Wandsworth Council leader, said: “Let’s not be coy about it, of course national issues were part of the dilemma people were facing.”
'Big turning point for Labour'
Labour's ability to take Barnet Council from the Tories will be seen as a sign the party has moved on from the days of being blighted by anti-Semitism rows under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.
The North London area has a large Jewish population — a voting bloc Sir Keir had reached out to immediately after becoming party leader in a bid to win back trust.
Before the final results were declared in Barnet, the Conservative group leader Daniel Thomas conceded defeat, saying the loss of the council “does not bode well” for the Tories and summing it up as a “warning shot” from his party’s supporters.
Speaking during a visit to Barnet on Thursday morning, Sir Keir lauded the party's “brilliant” result in the area and said there would be “more to come as the day goes on”.
“We've turned a massive corner in the Labour Party here,” he said.
“We're winning in London, we're winning north and south as well in Cumberland, we've won in Southampton, we've got more results to come.
“This is a big, big turning point for us. This is a massive turning point for the Labour Party.
“From the depths of 2019, we're back on track now for the general election showing the hard change that we've done in the last two years. What a difference it has made. Cumberland, very important win last night and key constituencies for the next general election. Same in Southampton.”
Asked if the results were a sign of the prime minister's failings rather than Labour's success, Sir Keir said votes for his party had been “hard earned”.
However, his party has also suffered losses, most notably in the northern city of Hull which has been taken by the Liberal Democrats.
Cabinet minister Robert Jenrick acknowledged the results were “disappointing” but said he did not believe there was a seismic shift in politics in the UK — where there was “no great love” for Sir Keir — and predicted results in other parts of England would be more favourable for the Tories.
Lord Barwell, ex-prime minister Theresa May’s former chief of staff, said the election results in London were “catastrophic” for the Conservatives and should serve as a “wake-up call” for the party.
The “partygate” saga and the cost-of-living crisis played heavily on voters minds when they went to the polls and Labour has accused the Conservative-led government of not doing enough to soften the blow of rising household bills for millions of families in the UK.
In the face of mounting criticism of Mr Johnson’s leadership, Conservative Party chairman Oliver Dowden defended the prime minister and insisted he was the right person to lead the party into the next general election.
“I think looking at the picture of the results so far, they demonstrate that while there have been difficult results, they are consistent with what you’d expect with us from midterm,” he told Sky News.
“Labour are certainly not on the path to power and I believe that Boris Johnson does have the leadership skills, in particular the energy and the dynamism that we need during this difficult period of time.”
Renowned polling guru Sir John Curtice said Tory MPs will worry about the results in southern England, where many of them have seats.
He said there remains a “very substantial legacy of the impact of Brexit”.
Sir John said Labour’s aim in the elections was to “demonstrate unambiguously that they are making progress”.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the party’s gains in the capital would enable the party to claim they had “reached a new zenith of popularity” in London.
“The trouble is outside of London Labour’s share of vote was actually down slightly,” he said. “Of course Labour can’t win Westminster Parliament by simply winning Westminster council.”
In other developments:
· The Tories won only one seat on Richmond council, with the Liberal Democrats winning the majority
· Labour lost Hull to the Liberal Democrats
· Labour gained Southampton from the Conservatives
· The Tories lost Worcester to no overall control
· The Conservatives lost West Oxfordshire, which contains David Cameron’s former Witney constituency, to no overall control
· Voters in Bristol decided to abolish the post of mayor in a referendum
· In Rutland, where there was not even an election, council leader Oliver Hemsley quit the Conservative group
· In Northern Ireland, counting will begin to decide on the formation of the Stormont Assembly, with Sinn Fein vying with the DUP to become the largest party
After official results were declared from 62 councils, the Tories had lost control of four authorities and suffered a net loss of 97 seats, Labour had a net gain of two councils and 52 councillors, the Lib Dems had gained one council and 40 seats, while the Greens had added 19 councillors.
The loss of Wandsworth will be a significant blow because of its symbolic status in London. It turned blue in 1978, a year before Margaret Thatcher’s election as prime minister and was reputedly her favourite council, noted for its low taxes.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan said “history has been made” with the victory.
He tweeted a video of Labour campaigners and councillors celebrating in Wandsworth.
In the video, Mr Khan can be heard saying: “Three words. Wandsworth, Labour, gains”, as Labour supporters cheer.
Midterm elections are always difficult for a governing party, although as many of the English seats were last contested in 2018 during Theresa May’s chaotic administration, opportunities for opposition parties to make further gains may be limited.
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis insisted Mr Johnson remained the right person to lead the Conservatives, amid speculation that a bad set of election results — coupled with any further revelations about parties breaking lockdown rules — could see more Tory MPs submitting letters of no confidence.
“I absolutely think we can win the next election and I do think Boris Johnson is the right person to lead us into that,” Mr Lewis told Sky News.
Labour’s campaign had been affected by Tory calls for Durham Police to look into whether Sir Keir broke Covid-19 rules while campaigning before the 2021 Hartlepool by-election — suggestions he has dismissed as “mudslinging”.
The police announced they would be investigating him on Friday but only after the polls had closed.
The Tories have also complained about a secret pact between Labour and the Lib Dems to maximise Conservative pain in marginal seats, a claim denied by both opposition parties.
Local elections for the devolved assembly in Belfast, Northern Ireland could see a pro-Irish nationalist party win for the first time, which could have huge constitutional implications for the four-nation UK's future, with predicted victors Sinn Fein committed to a vote on the reunification of Ireland.
The contest for Northern Ireland's power-sharing assembly is set to capture attention, after numerous polls put Sinn Fein ahead.
A University of Liverpool poll reported on Tuesday that the party remained on target to win comfortably with more than a quarter of the vote.
The pro-UK Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and cross-community Alliance Party were tied for second.
In Scotland, Labour is bidding to leapfrog the Conservatives into second place, behind the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP).