The decision of Greg Hands, the Conservative chair, to breezily announce in a TV interview that the party expects to lose at least 1,000 seats in next month’s local elections raised a few eyebrows among his MPs.
“What did he do that for?” one bemused MP asked. “I know you always have expectations management, but this seems a bit early and a bit excessive.”
All local election results tend to be scrutinised with near-obsessive zeal by pundits, and of course by parties and MPs, but the voting across 230 English councils on 4 May feels more significant. It will be the first actual verdict on Rishi Sunak since he became prime minister, however filtered and diffused that verdict is.
While Labour’s national lead remains large, a slight tightening in some polls – plus government achievements such as the revised Northern Ireland protocol – has helped create the narrative that the government’s woes may be easing, and that the next general election could be tighter than expected.
But a bad result for the Conservatives on 4 May would compound renewed troubles such as the departure of Dominic Raab, and Sunak’s electoral balloon could deflate all over again.
If Hands is right, and the Tories shed 1,000-plus seats, it would undoubtedly be a bad result. The last time these councils were fought for was 2019, when Theresa May was at the trough of her unpopularity and weeks away from agreeing a timetable to step down, and the party lost 1,300 councillors.
The rump of supporters who still long for a return of Boris Johnson before the next general election have always identified a number of moments of peril for Sunak.
The first that they pinned hopes on was the settling of the dispute over the Northern Ireland protocol, but despite rebellions from Johnson and the former prime minister Liz Truss, a well-organised government whipping operation saw off that threat.
Some of Sunak’s critics are waiting for the next moment to remind the Tories what a poor electoral predicament they are in.
“I think colleagues are very much still in the denial stage where they are so relieved that the days of Liz are over that they are able to blank out how badly we are going to lose,” one Sunak-backing MP said.
“I do think there will come a moment – I don’t know if this will be it – when that starts to loom large again. This party does not always make the best decisions in a panic.”
The MP intimated they believed it was more junior MPs, many from the “red wall”, who were more likely to start to panic again.
Key local authorities which are being watched closely for how they map on to the general picture are:
Bolsover council, where Labour needs to see off a challenge from a mix of independents.
High Peak council, where Labour is hoping to secure a majority.
The councils in Erewash, Hartlepool, North East Derbyshire and Southampton, where Labour hopes to make gains.
Labour strategists say they are wise to the expectation management from Tories and that they believe there will be an air war in the hours after the results, with their opponents keen to portray any Labour gains as worse than expected.
But the main focus is drilling down into the result to plan the next phase of the general election strategy.
“The most important thing for us is to know we are on track in what we need to do,” one senior adviser to Keir Starmer said.
“In 2020, even when we were closing the gap in the polls we were just not gaining ground in the areas we needed to. Last year, what we needed to see was not just the polls improving, but our vote distribution improving.
“It was great to win those totemic London councils, but it was even more important that we are winning in Cumbria, gaining ground in Kirklees.”
Labour believes that Tory losses may well not be as bad as expected, because the party is likely to win back seats from independent parties who did particularly well in 2019.
“I think we’ll have a good set of local elections if we focus on the right places, but the outcome we’re looking for is more about where we know we need to be for the general election,” the strategist said.
So how worried should Sunak be about his leadership in the aftermath of these results? And can you really map a general election result using local polls as a predictor?
There were several factors to consider, said Paula Surridge, a professor of political sociology at Bristol University and the deputy director of the UK in a Changing Europe thinktank.
“There’s a whole industry that exists around converting local election results to equivalent national shares, to take into account the fact there’s locals in some places and not others, all that sort of stuff,” she said.
“I think what gets missed in that is that the pool of voters who turn out at local elections is quite different, or perhaps more restricted, than those that turn out for general elections.
“The key things that are different about the groups that turn out in local elections is that they tend to be quite high-political-attention voters, who are likely to have seen the attack ads and the other things, possibly even watch Question Time. And they are more likely to have a party identity.
“What we’ve seen in recent general elections is that it’s the lower-attention voters that tend to move around more, and tend to produce these slightly surprising results. And they tend not to turn out at local elections.”
In one sense this is good news for Sunak: a poor result on 4 May might not necessarily augur as much for the next general election. But, as Surridge points out, there is a flipside: losing a large number of councillors would seem to indicate that even engaged, loyal Tories are either staying at home or – in some cases – even changing sides.
The Liberal Democrats and Greens, who have both tended to do well in recent sets of local elections and who expect more gains next month, place a high priority on council seats, which helps embed them in new areas, providing a ready-made garrison of leafleters and door-knockers.
There is a corollary to this for a party on the losing side. The Conservatives currently have about 7,000 councillors across the UK. If Hands is correct, they could lose 15% or more of their core election-fighting machine.
The Lib Dems also say they have evidence that voters who switch to them from the Tories in a local election are likely to do the same in a general election, with the party pouring resources into council areas which overlap with target constituencies.
As ever with local elections, on 5 May just about every party will say they had a good night. Only some, however, will be telling the truth.