Boris Johnson will face renewed pressure on his leadership on Friday after the Conservatives suffered significant defeats in local elections across the UK, including losing the flagship London council of Wandsworth.
Labour won the borough beloved of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher for its ultra-low local tax rates after 44 years in Tory hands, but Sir Keir Starmer’s party was doing less well in traditional “red wall” areas in the north.
The Conservatives were also losing ground to the Liberal Democrats, who have opened up a second front for Johnson in some of the more affluent “blue wall” seats across the south of England.
Almost 150 councils held votes across England on Thursday, including the 32 boroughs in London. Council seats were also being contested in Scotland and Wales, while there crucial elections to the Northern Ireland assembly.
Tory MPs will pore over the results for any signs that Johnson, who has been sharply criticised over partygate scandal and his handling of the cost of living crisis, has been permanently damaged as party leader.
The prime minister signalled in a WhatsApp message to colleagues on Thursday night that he was going nowhere, thanking them for their work in the local contests and declaring: “Onward!”
The elections are also a big test for Starmer, who needs to show that Labour is regaining ground from the Tories in the north, and wants to overtake the Conservatives as the main opposition to the SNP in Scotland.
Early results were poor for Johnson, suggesting the Tories were losing about one in six of the seats they were defending, although the party had attempted to manage expectations ahead of the vote by saying they could lose hundreds of seats — a claim that was derided by Labour.
Many Tory MPs have said that a bad midterm result was “in the price” and Johnson would survive a drubbing at the polls.
Early results provided signs that voters were turning against the Conservatives across the country, with the Lib Dems on course for a particularly good night.
Sir Ed Davey’s party seized the northern city of Hull from Labour and was performing well against the Tories in the south.
But while Labour was doing well in London and took Southampton from the Tories, the party lagged in other parts of England, including areas that voted for Brexit in 2016.
Nonetheless, Labour focused on its successes in London. “Boris Johnson losing Wandsworth is monumental,” said a Starmer ally. “This was the Tories’ jewel in the crown.”
In another sign of the prime minister had lost support among metropolitan voters, Labour won the Tory council of Barnet and was poised to take Westminster, which has been led by the Conservatives since it was created in 1964.
After weeks of local campaigning, many Conservatives were deeply frustrated that national events — including partygate scandal and reports of sexual misconduct by Tory MPs — had cost them votes.
Simon Bosher, Tory leader in Portsmouth, where the party lost four seats, said Johnson should “take a good, strong look in the mirror”.
John Mallinson, Tory leader of Carlisle council, said after Labour won the new Cumberland authority: “I just don’t feel people any longer have the confidence that the prime minister can be relied upon to tell the truth.”
Ravi Govindia, leader of the Wandsworth Tories, said: “Let’s not be coy about it, of course national issues were part of the dilemma people were facing.” He added that people “raised the issue of Boris Johnson” on the doorstep.
Shabana Mahmood, Labour’s campaign chief, said: “This is a turning point for the Labour party. After the disastrous results of 2019, these early results are showing the progress we have made thanks to Keir’s leadership.”