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Britain’s Conservatives suffer heavy losses in a sign that Rishi Sunak is in real trouble

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Britain’s governing Conservative Party suffered heavy losses in local elections, a sign that they could be in real trouble when the country holds a general election at some point later this year.

With around a third of the results declared, the loss of more than 100 seats on local councils and one parliamentary seat in a by-election suggest that national polls in which Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his party trail by a distance are correct. It also means that if a general election were held tomorrow, the opposition Labour Party would almost certainly win power.

Conservatives are attempting to spin some positives, with one campaign source saying: “Whilst this is a tough night for the Conservative party, it’s clear there is absolutely no love for (opposition leader) Keir Starmer.”

There may be some truth to this: Conservative losses were not exclusively gains for Labour. Parties across the political spectrum, including the new populist right-wing Reform UK, benefited from the Conservatives’ poor performance.

What these results don’t tell us is when the general election will take place. That decision rests solely in the hands of Sunak, who has until December 17 to call an election.

Conservatives are divided on when they think Sunak should bite the ballot bullet. He has to date only committed to it happening in the second half of 2024. The harsh truth is that there is no obvious good time for Sunak to call the election. In all scenarios, there are vanishingly few who think he has any chance of winning re-election, with most instead basing their opinions on what what be the least bad loss.

There has recently been speculation that he could decide to go to the polls as early as July.

The advantage of a summer election, proponents say, is that Sunak can tell a better story than he has been able to for some time. His flagship immigration policy, under which asylum seekers are flown to Rwanda to have their claims considered there, is finally getting off the ground.

Earlier this week, the government sent out a press release celebrating that immigration officers had rounded up people destined for Rwanda. Photographs showing asylum seekers in handcuffs and being locked in the back of vans were met with mixed responses, but the intended message was clear: We are serious and our plan is working.

He has other relatively positive stories to tell, compared to the past few months of relentless misery. While interest rates have not fallen as fast as hoped, the economic situation has improved. Tax cuts for workers are coming into effect and he has committed to raise British defense spending to 2.5% of GDP.

The proximity to government victories – especially Rwanda – could help Sunak fight off attacks from the right, who have been pressuring him on immigration for months. The longer he delays, the more time the public – especially those most concerned about immigration – will have to see any flaws in the policy.

Others think Sunak should look toward the end of the year, as it allows the most time for things to improve.

It is true that Sunak inherited a mess from his two predecessors Boris Johnson and Liz Truss. Johnson had to resign in disgrace after months of scandals dogging his premiership while Truss became the shortest-serving PM in history after her controversial economic policies saw the pound slump to its lowest ever point against the dollar.

Naturally, these left Sunak in a difficult position with the public, trailing in the polls. However, the picture has not gotten any better since Sunak took over and there is every chance that waiting could lead to things actually getting worse.

This is the unenviable situation Sunak finds himself in. Virtually no one thinks he will still be in power this time next year and even his allies are resigned to treating the rest of his time in office as damage limitation. Of course, there is always the chance that some freak event could change everything. But that seems unlikely and since taking office in late 2022, Sunak has not been a man who can rely on luck.

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