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Tory MPs urged to unite behind Johnson after local election losses

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi insisted the Prime Minister remained an electoral asset despite the loss of almost 400 councillors.

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Nadhim Zahawi

Boris Johnson will use the Queen’s Speech as an effort to secure his leadership following a bruising set of local elections which saw the Tories lose control of key authorities and suffer a net loss of more than 400 councillors.

The speech on Tuesday setting out the Government’s priorities would focus on the economy, health and national security, Cabinet minister, Nadhim Zahawi, said as he urged Tory MPs to rally round the Prime Minister.

Mr Zahawi insisted the Prime Minister, who delivered 2019’s general election landslide, remained an electoral asset to the Tories despite issues in No 10 and Westminster being blamed for the local defeats inflicted on the party.

The loss of Wandsworth and Westminster in London to Labour, after decades of Tory control, and significant defeats to the Liberal Democrats in southern heartlands, such as Woking, could persuade more MPs to submit letters of no-confidence in the Prime Minister.

The partygate row, which has seen Mr Johnson and Rishi Sunak fined for breaching coronavirus laws, scandals involving MPs Neil Parish and Imran Ahmad Khan, and the cost-of-living crisis, all contributed to a difficult set of results for the Prime Minister.

In a message to Tory colleagues, the Education Secretary said: “People don’t like to vote for split parties, for teams that are divided.

“We are strongest when we are united, we’ve got a Queen’s Speech next week where we will demonstrate to the nation that the second half of this Parliament is all about dealing with repairing the economy, recovering from Covid, the backlog of the NHS and national security – here at home, safer streets – and, of course, abroad.

“All of these things we have a plan for.

“We are stronger when we are united and that would be my message to all my colleagues.”

He told Sky News that Mr Johnson “absolutely” remained an electoral asset: “Boris cuts through in places like Nuneaton, places like Newcastle-under-Lyme, other parts of the country as well – Harrow in London.”

Harrow provided a rare bright spot in the capital, with the Tories taking the authority from Labour, while the Conservative majority increased in Newcastle-under-Lyme.

But Aaron Bell, MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme, said the partygate row had come up on some doorsteps in the Staffordshire council and that the issues around Mr Johnson’s leadership had to be brought to a head.

Mr Bell, who has already submitted a letter of no confidence in Mr Johnson, told BBC Radio 4’s Today: “It’s not really up to me, it’s up to my colleagues and I’m sure when we get back to Westminster there will be a discussion about that.

“What I do think is it needs to be brought to a head sooner rather than later because I don’t think we can continue having this hanging over the party for many more months to come, with the Metropolitan Police and Sue Gray and then the Privileges Committee.”

Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross said Mr Johnson has to “reflect on the result across the whole of the UK and the various parts of the country that have said very clearly they are unhappy with the Prime Minister and his actions”.

Scotland Yard is still looking at parties in Downing Street and Whitehall, with the publication of senior civil servant Sue Gray’s report awaiting the conclusion of the police inquiry.

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

An analysis for the BBC, by elections expert Professor Sir John Curtice, calculated that if the whole country had been voting, Labour would have gained 35% of the vote – five points ahead of the Tories on 30% – the party’s biggest lead in local elections for a decade.

After results from 198 out of 200 councils, the Tories had suffered a net loss of 12 authorities and 401 councillors, Labour had gained seven councils and 240 seats, the Liberal Democrats five authorities and 188 councillors.

In London, Tower Hamlets switched from Labour to Aspire, the party of controversial mayor Lutfur Rahman.

Labour is facing its own difficulties after police announced a probe into whether leader Sir Keir Starmer broke lockdown rules last year.

Sir Keir, who denies any wrongdoing, said the elections were a “turning point” for Labour.

He told reporters on a visit to Scotland: “We are turning the corner, and now we are marching towards that general election.

“We did really well, we won in the north (of England). I was in Cumberland, Carlisle, yesterday where we won, we won in the south in Southampton, we took seats in London people said we would never take, did really well in Wales and here in Scotland, the best results for a decade.”

In Scotland, the Tories slipped into third place as the SNP increased its tally of councillors by 22 to 453 while Scottish Labour was able to capitalise on the collapse of Conservative support to come second.

Sir Keir said: “Anas Sarwar has been leader here for 14 months and he’s really turned it around, we are back on the pitch, we are the alternative to the divisive SNP here in Scotland.”

In Wales, the Tories lost control of their only council, Monmouthshire, with Labour, the Lib Dems and Plaid Cymru all gaining seats across the nation.

In Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein is on course for a historic victory in the Assembly election.

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

The republican party secured 29% of first-preference votes, compared with 21.3% for the DUP, 13.5% for Alliance, 11.2% for the Ulster Unionists and 9.1% for the SDLP.

Shortly after 6pm on Saturday, 81 of 90 Assembly seats had been filled – with Sinn Fein and the DUP both on 23.

A victory for Sinn Fein raises the prospect of the republicans holding the post of First Minister and will be sure to reignite debate around a united Ireland.

Mary Lou McDonald, president and leader of the party, told TalkTV she believed a border poll would be “possible within a five-year timeframe”.

But issues around the Northern Ireland Protocol could derail attempts to form an administration, with the DUP threatening to refuse to join an executive until action is taked to address problems with the post-Brexit deal.