Politics

In 1997, as he celebrated Labour’s landslide, Tony Blair famously declared: “A new dawn has broken, has it not?”

In 2023, as they head towards a set of dismal local election results, the Tories will fear this is the darkest hour before another new Labour dawn next year.

From Plymouth to Stoke-on-Trent, from the South West and South East of England to the Midlands and the North, the overnight results have been disastrous for the Conservatives.

Defeat for the Tories in Plymouth was surely one of the night’s most predictable results, after the national public outcry against the council’s act of vandalism – according to critics – in chopping down trees in the city centre.

But Labour was on the verge of one of its most spectacular results in Medway, in Kent, where the Conservatives looked like being ousted after 20 years in power.

Counting took place all night at the Medway Park sports centre in Gillingham, opened by Dr Roger Bannister in 1973.

And the count was a marathon, not a sprint.

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The outgoing Tory leader of the council, 72-year-old Alan Jarrett, candidly admitted in a Sky News interview the government’s unpopularity was a big factor in his party’s defeat.

As Labour candidates were elected with thumping majorities, group leader Vince Maple appeared poised to become council leader.

Some 24 hours earlier, at an elite drinks party at the Reform Club in Pall Mall, Rishi Sunak had said the Conservatives would lose seats because of the “box-set drama” that engulfed the party during the premierships of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.

Labour certainly pulled out all the stops in Medway, with Sir Keir Starmer visiting twice, the second time on the final day of campaigning. The Tory chairman, Greg Hands, even visited on polling day.

Back in the 1990s, a Labour surge in local elections in Medway acted as a springboard for Mr Blair, winning all three parliamentary constituencies in the borough in his 1997 landslide.

But the arithmetic is different now, and Medway has three Conservative MPs with big majorities: Tracey Crouch in Chatham and Aylesford (18,540), Rehman Chishti in Gillingham and Rainham (15,119) and Kelly Tolhurst in Rochester and Strood (17,072).

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Tory MP: ‘Some dissatisfaction’ with government

Read more:
Local election results in full
Guide to the key results so far – and what is still to come
How to cut through the political spin as the parties pick apart the results

Elsewhere in the country, however, Conservative MPs with smaller majorities will be in a cold sweat this morning.

So much for a Rishi Sunak bounce in the Tories’ fortunes, so far, although Friday afternoon’s results – mostly in the shires and districts – should be better for the Conservatives than those declared overnight, mostly in the urban areas.

Many of the Conservatives’ worst results were in “red wall” and strongly pro-Brexit areas, like Stoke-on-Trent, for example. What will worry the party’s high command is that Nigel Farage’s vote in 2019 appears to have gone back to Labour, not the Tories.

That will be a massive relief to Sir Keir, who has wobbled in recent weeks under a Tory onslaught of labelling him “Sir Softie” on crime and “Sir Flipflop” on issues like tuition fees.

We shouldn’t forget the big gains made by the Liberal Democrats, either, many in so-called “blue wall” areas in affluent southern England. They look poised to snatch more seats from the Conservatives at the general election.

So as the sun rose around the town halls of England this morning, Labour and the Lib Dems could be confident of a new dawn on the horizon. But for the Tories, it really was one of their darkest hours.

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