Sir Keir Starmer strode into the Labor Party headquarters on London’s South Bank on Friday, enjoying applause from employees after the party’s local election victories. “Doesn’t it feel good to win?” he smiled.

When it comes to general elections, some in the room would have had no idea: Labour It last won power in a national contest in 2005, when some party bureaucrats were still in primary school.

As the dust settled over a dramatic series of English council results, two big questions hung in the air: Is the Labor leader now on his way to Downing Street after local victories stretching from Middlesbrough to Plymouth?

And will the results deal a heavy blow to Rishi Sunak’s attempt to restore the Conservative Party’s fortunes, sparking a new round of factional infighting and tense political debates over issues like taxes and housing?

Starmer’s allies have been greatly reassured by Labor’s success in securing a more “efficient” distribution of the party’s votes, which had previously accumulated in secure parliamentary seats in London, Manchester and other big cities.

The fact that Labor took control of councils in the south of England, such as Medway in Kent and Swindon on the M4 corridor, was a sign of progress in areas that voted heavily for Tony Blair’s “new” Labor in 1997.

Victories in ‘red wall’ areas in the north of England, such as Stoke-on-Trent, High Peak and Blackpool, were evidence that Starmer was also working his way into the former Leave-supporting seats won by Boris Johnson in the general elections of 2019. In fact, the Labor Party stronger performances they were in the working class, former strongholds of Brexit.

But Starmer it needs a seismic electoral shock in the general election—on a scale of Clement Attlee’s victory in 1945 or Blair’s victory in 1997—next year to win a majority of one in the House of Commons.

Sarah Jane Colclough from Labor wins the seat of Bentilee, Ubberley and Townsend, Stoke-on-Trent
Labor Sarah Jane Colclough wins the Bentilee, Ubberley and Townsend seat, Stoke-on-Trent © Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

The “projected national share” of the BBC vote, based on the local election Results: It gave Labor 35 percent and the Conservatives 26 percent, the biggest Labor lead since 1997.

But Conservative officials pointed out that Blair in 1996 and Conservative leader David Cameron in 2009 fared much better in local councils ahead of national polls a year later.

Labor has 196 MPs but needs 326 seats for an overall majority in the House of Commons. Based on Friday’s results, it’s still a tall order. “We all know there is no room for slack,” Starmer told Labor staff. “Let’s never confuse trust with complacency.”

A Labor revival in Scotland at the expense of a crisis-hit Scottish National Party would help Starmer, but he might still need the Lib Dems to tear down parts of the Tory “blue wall” in the south to help him cross the Downing Street threshold. .

A parliamentary parliament, with Starmer leading the largest party, is a clear possibility based on the local council results. But such polls, with their low turnout, are not always a good guide to future national elections.

Lord Peter Mandelson, one of the architects of Blair’s first election victory, agreed that the mood was “not yet 1997” but said he believed the country was ready for change.

“I think the Conservatives have been casting Sunak as a ‘clean skin’, someone voters can look at again, forget the Conservatives’ record and get things done,” he added. “There is no evidence that voters are buying this.”

For SunakThe council’s results were a searing reminder of the task he faces if he is to secure a fifth straight general election victory for the Conservatives and the extent of the damage to the party’s brand caused by Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.

“This was completely predictable,” said a cabinet minister. “In six months you cannot correct the embarrassments of the 18 months before the prime minister took office.”

Sunak is facing criticism from the conservative right for failing to follow through on an agenda of tax cuts and planning reforms of the kind that Truss tried and failed to deliver. Those criticisms will now intensify and some Conservative MPs would like to see Johnson return to number 10.

However, Sunak does not face any serious threat to his leadership: polls suggest he is more popular than his party, and he is running head to head in some polls with Starmer on the question of who would make the best prime minister.

But the results raise questions about the future direction of his government, with Conservative MPs suggesting the prime minister will be urged to swing to the right to win back public support.

The fallout will test his ability to hold the splintered Conservative coalition together, with southern Conservative MPs wanting lower taxes and less housing and their northern counterparts demanding more public spending and more housing.

A backing Conservative MP said the “difficult and disappointing” results meant “many colleagues will be worried about their seats” in the general election, and would encourage Sunak’s critics to speak out.

The MP drew attention to an international conference involving right-wing politicians in London later this month, at which leading Conservative figures, including Home Secretary Suella Braverman and former ministers Jacob Rees-Mogg and Lord David Frost, are the main speakers.

“It is quite important,” said the deputy. “What it shows is that there is a lot of energy in that part of the right. There has always been the libertarian right and then a social conservative right. The latter is going to grow in strength and noise.”

In a sign that the battle for the party’s soul could turn rancorous, former moderate Conservative minister Tobias Ellwood insisted that a shake to the right would be “political suicide” for the Tories, saying: “We are already seeing murmurs from the right of the party. party that seeks to exploit the poor results, hoping to revive its agenda.

Johnson’s name was longingly invoked in some quarters. David Campbell Bannerman, a former Conservative MEP, said the party should make gains rather than losses in local elections.

“You can change things with the right leadership and the right policy offering and Rishi hasn’t done that,” he added. Mocking Sunak as “robot, a John Major 2”, he called for Johnson’s return to the helm.

Campbell Bannerman is chairman of the Conservative Democratic Organization, a group created after Johnson was ousted from Downing Street and run by his allies.

Conservative recriminations on Friday also targeted frontline politicians seen as making pointless interventions that gave away sound bites to headline writers, including Veterans Affairs Minister Johnny Mercer, who declared that the results of local elections were “terrible” for the Conservatives.

But a Tory official said the party had simply run a dismal campaign, with Sunak and other cabinet ministers largely invisible. “Workers seem hungrier. I think we have gotten used to winning,” he added.

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