Conservative councillors on Friday warned that prime minister Rishi Sunak faces an uphill battle to regain the trust of voters, following a bruising set of local election results for the government. 

In Sunak’s first electoral test as leader, results on Friday afternoon revealed the extent of his party’s losses, with the Tories losing around 649 seats and control of more than 38 councils including Windsor and Maidenhead, Swindon and Stoke-on-Trent. 

Several Conservative councillors said the poll had been seen by many voters as a way of punishing Sunak’s government over its handling of key issues such as the cost of living crisis, immigration and the NHS. 

Alan Jarrett, who lost his position of leader of Medway council in Kent after the Labour party achieved a historic victory in the authority, said the results reflected the general “unpopularity” of the national Conservative government and recent changes in electoral boundaries. 

“The two main national issues impacting people here are the imposition of housing targets, which as far as Medway is concerned are unrealistic and undeliverable and has created a sense of things being imposed without local consent,” he said. “Secondly, access to GP appointments . . . the public want good public services delivered in a timely fashion.”

He added: “The government can turn it around — whether they have time ahead of a general election is another question.”

Party strategists had warned that the Conservatives would lose as many as 1,000 of the 8,000 seats up for grabs across 230 councils in England, with the final full results expected on Friday evening.

Tory councillor Adam Stokes, who lost his seat and position as deputy leader of South Kesteven district council in Lincolnshire, agreed that many people “voted on the basis of what is happening nationally” rather than discontent with the local running of services. “This was clearly an anti-Tory vote,” he added.

Friday’s result saw the district council’s leadership shift from Conservative led to under no overall control. “There was lots of concern on the doorsteps about national issues such as immigration, the cost of living, namely the cost of mortgages,” Stokes added. 

Stokes argued that it would be “difficult” for Sunak to win a fifth Conservative term, adding that at this point in the electoral cycle there was a “lot of deep rooted discontent”. But “equally if he meets his five targets and the economy grows there is always a chance,” he added.

Others were more optimistic, arguing that while the Conservatives had sustained losses, opposition parties have yet to turn high polling into tangible success at the ballot box. 

“On the whole mainly local issues dominated the campaign,” said Martyn Cox, who served as leader of Bolton council in Greater Manchester. The Labour party replaced the Conservatives as the largest party in Bolton but failed to gain enough seats to control the council outright.

“There may be some Conservatives who stayed at home or voted for the independents but there was hardly a collapse in Tory support,” said Cox.

“Neither Sunak nor Starmer came up on the doorsteps or have made a huge impact on the public. People may be annoyed with the Conservatives but have little faith that Labour can actually help them,” he added.

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