LONDON — Britain’s governing Conservative Party is suffering heavy losses as local election results pour in Friday, piling pressure on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak ahead of a U.K. general election in which the main opposition Labour Party appears increasingly likely to return to power after 14 years.

Labour won control of councils in England it hasn’t held for decades and was successful in a special by-election for Parliament. Its only negative has been in some areas with large Muslim populations, such as Oldham in northwest England, where the party’s candidates appear to have suffered as a result of leader Keir Starmer ‘s strongly pro-Israel stance in the conflict in Gaza.

Perhaps of most importance in the context of the looming general election, Labour won Blackpool South, a long-time Labour seat in the northwest of England that went Conservative in the last general election in 2019, when then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson won a big victory. In the contest, triggered by the resignation of a Conservative lawmaker following a lobbying scandal, Labour’s Chris Webb secured 10,825 votes, 7,607 more than his second-placed Conservative opponent.

“This seismic win in Blackpool South is the most important result today,” Starmer said. “This is the one contest where voters had the chance to send a message to Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives directly, and that message is an overwhelming vote for change.”

Thursday’s elections were important in themselves, with voters deciding who will run many aspects of their daily lives, such as garbage collection, road maintenance and local crime prevention, in the coming years. But with a general election looming, they will be viewed through a national prism.

The results so far provide more evidence that Labour is likely to form the next government — and by quite a margin — and that Starmer will become prime minister.

As of early Friday, with barely a quarter of the 2,661 seats up for grabs counted, the Conservatives were down 115 while Labour was up 60. Labour has won in areas, which voted heavily for Britain’s departure from the European Union and where it was crushed by Johnson, such as Hartlepool in the northeast of England, and Thurrock in southeast England. It also seized control of Rushmoor, a leafy and military-heavy council in the south of England where it has never been in power.

John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, said the results so far indicate that the Conservatives are losing around half of the seats they are trying to defend.

“We are probably looking at certainly one of the worst, if not the worst, Conservative performances in local government elections for the last 40 years,” he told BBC radio.

The results will roll in through Saturday. Sunak hopes he can point to successes, notably in several key mayoral races, to douse talk that the Conservative Party will change its leader again before the United Kingdom’s main election, which could take place as soon as next month.

Key to his survival could be the results of mayoral elections in Tees Valley in the northeast of England and in the West Midlands. The former is due Friday midday and the latter on Saturday. Should Conservative mayors Andy Street and Ben Houchen hold on, he may win some respite from restive lawmakers in his party. Should both lose, he may face trouble. Labour’s Sadiq Khan is expected to remain mayor of London when results are announced on Saturday..

Sunak could preempt any challenge by threatening to call a general election that has to take place before January 2025. He has the power to decide on the date and has indicated that it will be in the second half of 2024.

Sunak became prime minister in October 2022 after the short-lived tenure of his predecessor, Liz Truss, who left office after 49 days following a budget of unfunded tax cuts that roiled financial markets and sent borrowing costs for homeowners surging.

Her chaotic — and traumatic — leadership compounded the Conservatives’ difficulties following the circus surrounding her predecessor Johnson, who was forced to quit after being adjudged to have lied to Parliament over lockdown breaches at his offices in Downing Street.

Nothing Sunak has tried to do appears to have shifted the political dial, with Labour consistently 20 percentage points ahead in opinion polls, which would lead, if translated into a general election, to a landslide victory on a par with that achieved by Tony Blair in 1997.



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