Polls have opened in the local elections, with both major parties frenetically managing expectations as a Tory mayor warns Boris Johnson he will have to go further in helping people struggling with the cost of living.
The results will be seen as a major test for Johnson and Keir Starmer, coming at the ostensible mid-way point of the UK government’s term. A total of 146 English councils, and all those in Scotland and Wales, are up for grabs – as well as seven mayoralties.
In Northern Ireland, voters will also elect 90 members to the devolved assembly in a contest from which Sinn Féin could emerge as the largest party.
Coming after the prime minister and chancellor were fined for breaking Covid laws, the pressure is on the Conservatives to make some gains on councils across the country.
The last time these seats in England were contested was 2018 and in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales it was 2017 – one of the lowest periods of the Conservative’ party’s popularity given deep divisions over the handling of Brexit by Theresa May.
Tory MPs have indicated mixed responses on the doorstep, with those in the party’s traditional southern heartlands concerned that voters will stay at home.
Some are even plotting for a poor result to be the excuse to launch a fresh leadership challenge against Johnson.
The Liberal Democrats’ deputy leader, Daisy Cooper, accused Johnson of failing to visit many of the towns, villages and cities in the south of England that have become known as the “blue wall”. She said: “Your no-show in this election is an insult to millions of people.”
Meanwhile, Tory peer and elections expert Robert Hayward said postal vote returns were down “quite markedly” compared with 2018. He added: “My expectation is therefore that turnout will be hard pushed to reach 30% in 2022.
“I don’t think this will benefit any one party but more that the electorate is saying ‘a plague on all your houses’.”
Hayward told the Guardian he was staggered by the “the range of expectation management by the two major parties”, given Tory insiders fear the party could be on course to lose up to half the seats they are defending and some Labour figures have downplayed the chances of many gains.
“It’s a bigger range than I’ve ever experienced before,” Hayward said.
He acknowledged the cost of living crisis was a “genuine issue” and said Sunak had made “some good first moves”, but said the government would have to go further to mitigate the effects of spiralling energy bills, before the price cap is raised again in the autumn.
Street told the Guardian: “I’m expecting movement before the autumn and it looks sadly now as though that will be necessary, because we do seem to be heading into another price hike. So I’m expecting further moves.”
Despite some candidates badging themselves as “Local Conservatives” and urging voters not to punish them for “mistakes made in Westminster”, Street said there was “an incredible goodwill” among people towards Johnson, and that he remained an electoral asset.
In his closing pitch, Starmer tried to move attention on from questions about him drinking a beer with colleagues in April 2021 and stressed that voters would be motivated predominantly by the cost of living.
Asked if Durham constabulary had contacted him in recent days, the Labour leader said: “I have not had contact from Durham constabulary and I think people are just about fed up with the mudslinging that’s going on.”
“This relentless focus on mudslinging instead of the issue in hand by the Conservatives means that they’ve got no answer to the real question that so many people want answered, which is: ‘What are you going to do to help me with my bills?’
“We’ve got a clear answer to that, which is a windfall tax on oil and gas companies, and use that to help people pay their bills, up to £600 off their bills.”
Johnson also sought to downplay concerns about the Partygate scandal, and insisted he would still be leader of the Conservatives at the next general election.
The prime minister said he was “absolutely confident that we have the right agenda for the country”, and added: “I have a big mandate to deliver.”
However, Ed Davey, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, said Johnson’s leadership was a factor in encouraging some people to switch to his party because the prime minister was not a “decent man”.
He said: “That’s a group of lifelong Tories who are telling us they’ll never vote Tory again while Boris Johnson’s prime minister, and many of them are switching to us.”
Polling stations are open across the country from 7am until 10pm. Some results will be announced overnight, but others may not come until much later the following day.