Boris Johnson’s Tories fear a ‘tough’ set of results as the first votes start being counted following elections across the UK.
Council seats are up for grabs in Scotland, Wales and many parts of England, while Northern Ireland is electing its new assembly in what could be the most significant vote of them all, with Sinn Fein seeking to become the largest party.
Votes will be counted in some of the English contests overnight including key authorities in London, where the Tories’ flagship council Wandsworth could be vulnerable to Labour.
The elections take place following the partygate scandal and with concerns about a cost-of-living crisis underlined by grim economic forecasts from the Bank of England on polling day.
Mid-term 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, there may only be limited opportunities for opposition parties to make further gains.
A Tory source said: ‘The battleground for these elections was firmly in Labour’s favour. And the Conservatives are behind in the national polls – so we expect these elections to be tough.’
Wandsworth is a totemic authority for the Tories. It was a favourite of Margaret Thatcher’s – turning blue in 1978 a year before her election as prime minister – and is renowned for its low taxes.
But Tory insiders believe it is a ‘definite loss’, along with Barnet, while Westminster could also see a loss of Tory control in what would amount to a grim night for Mr Johnson’s party in the city he used to run.
The Prime Minister thanked Tory supporters for ‘their hard work to support our plan to keep council taxes low’.
Labour’s chairwoman Anneliese Dodds said she hoped the results would show progress since the 2019 general election drubbing under Jeremy Corbyn.
‘It’s going to be a long night and there will be ups and downs – we hold the majority of the seats up for election in England, so never expected big gains,’ she said.
‘These results will show the progress we have made thanks to Keir’s leadership since the disastrous 2019 election result.
‘Labour is a renewed and confident party, making headway in England, Scotland and Wales.’
The Liberal Democrats hope to make further inroads in Tory heartlands – the ‘Blue Wall’ in southern England – following recent Westminster by-election successes in North Shropshire and Chesham and Amersham.
Party leader Sir Ed Davey said: ‘I am optimistic that thanks to their hard work, the Liberal Democrats will gain ground in areas across the Blue Wall where voters are fed up of being taken for granted by the Conservatives.
‘After knocking on hundreds of doors this election, one thing is clear: people are sick of Boris Johnson’s Conservatives. They have had enough of seeing their taxes hiked, sewage dumped in their rivers and local health services run into the ground.’
Votes in many English authorities, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will not begin to be counted until Friday.
The Conservatives will find out in the coming days as votes are tallied whether they will be made to pay the price for the so-called partygate saga in Downing Street, which has seen Mr Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak fined for breaking coronavirus laws.
The scale of the cost-of-living crisis has also been highlighted by the Bank of England’s intervention on Thursday – with interest rates rising to 1%, their highest for 13 years, and inflation forecast to hit more than 10%.
In a grim set of forecasts, the Bank predicted that growth will contract in the final three months of 2022 as the cost squeeze sees households rein in their spending.
Meanwhile, former Conservative minister Nick Boles – a senior aide to Mr Johnson during his time as London mayor – revealed that he voted Labour for the first time since Tony Blair’s 1997 general election landslide.
Mr Boles, a former MP for Grantham and Stamford who left the Conservative Party in 2019, tweeted: ‘First time I’ve voted Labour since an equally glorious May morning in 1997.’
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon made the case to vote for the SNP at her local polling station in Glasgow while her Welsh counterpart Mark Drakeford wore a red tie for Labour as he cast his ballot in Cardiff.
As well as partygate, the Tories have been hit with a string of other controversies, including former Wakefield MP Imran Ahmad Khan being found guilty of sexually assaulting a teenage boy and veteran MP Neil Parish quitting after admitting he watched pornography in the Commons.
Meanwhile, there have been Tory calls for Durham Police to look into whether Sir Keir Starmer broke Covid rules while campaigning before the 2021 Hartlepool by-election.
But the Labour leader claims it is a ‘smear’ to suggest he breached the regulations while having ‘a takeaway and a beer while I was working late at night’.
In England, more than 4,000 councillors in 146 councils are standing for election in major cities including Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham and all 32 London boroughs.
All 32 councils in Scotland and all 22 in Wales are also holding elections.
Meanwhile, tensions are high in Northern Ireland for the Stormont election, where voters went to the polls across 18 constituencies to elect 90 MLAs.
The unionist DUP and republican Sinn Fein are vying for the top spot in the election, which comes with the entitlement to nominate the next first minister.
A unionist party has always been the biggest in the Assembly, and previously the Stormont Parliament, since the formation of the state in 1921.
While the office of the first and deputy first minister is an equal one with joint power, the allocation of the titles is regarded as symbolically important.
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