The Observer view on the local elections: Rishi Sunak is a busted flush, it’s time to call a general election

<span>Rishi Sunak in Teesside on 3 May to mark Ben Houchen’s mayoral victory in Tees Valley.</span><span>Photograph: Molly Darlington/Reuters</span>
Rishi Sunak in Teesside on 3 May to mark Ben Houchen’s mayoral victory in Tees Valley.Photograph: Molly Darlington/Reuters

Rishi Sunak’s government began last week by triumphantly announcing that a man whose asylum claim had been rejected had volunteered to take up to £3,000 cash in exchange for agreeing to take a commercial flight to Rwanda – plus the provision of housing, food and healthcare there for five years at a cost of £150,000 to the taxpayer. Sunak bookended it with some of the worst-ever English local election results for the Conservatives, and the shock loss of the West Midlands mayoralty to the Labour party.

A direct line can be traced from this preposterous claim of success to electoral disaster. During 14 years in government, the Conservatives have eroded the welfare safety net, sabotaged the quality of public services through underfunding and neglect, and imposed a huge economic hit in the form of a hard Brexit. Child poverty has gone up, the NHS is blighted by record waiting lists and understaffing and social care services for the vulnerable have been adversely affected.

Sunak has no answers on any of this. Instead, the bulk of his energy appears focused on his hopeless Rwanda plan to “stop the small boats”. While parliament passed the legislation to pave the way for detained asylum seekers to be deported to Rwanda at the end of last month, it remains highly unlikely that this immoral scheme will deter desperate men, women and children from countries like Syria and Afghanistan from attempting the dangerous Channel crossing. This is even more true in light of the very low probability of deportation, given the relatively small numbers involved.

The results show that voters are wise to the hollowness of Rishi Sunak’s pitch

It will be at least another few weeks before any of those who are seeking asylum get deported to Rwanda. The government’s attempt to bank a win for its scheme because someone with a rejected asylum claim, with no right to remain in the UK, voluntarily accepted a favourable deal to leave for Rwanda as an extension of a preexisting returns scheme, radiates sheer desperation. Last week’s election results demonstrate just how disconnected from voters it is.

The Conservatives suffered their worst local election defeat since 1996 in polls that took place across much of England, resulting in a loss of almost 500 councillors putting the party in third place on the seats contested, behind the Liberal Democrats, who enjoyed a good set of results. Conservative candidates lost in every mayoral contest except for Tees Valley. Even here there was a very significant swing away from the Conservatives. While the Reform party under-performed compared to national polls, it still cost the Conservatives votes including in the Blackpool South by-election, which contributed to the dramatic 26 percentage point swing there to Labour.

If the results were dire for the Conservatives, for Keir Starmer the story was overwhelmingly positive. Significantly, Labour candidates did best in areas where it most needs to excel to win a general election: areas which voted leave in 2019 and where it was challenging the Conservatives. This suggests the waning influence of Brexit divisions on people’s voting behaviour, and demonstrates growing Labour strength in the “red wall” seats in the north and the Midlands that opened the way for Boris Johnson’s 80-seat majority in December 2019. Labour won every newly created mayoralty and, in perhaps the most surprising result of the weekend, its candidate Richard Parker beat popular incumbent Andy Street in the West Midlands. It bodes very well for the general election.

Starmer deserves much credit for the promising indicators that many of those who abandoned Labour are returning to the fold

That said, Labour did also lose votes to the Greens and to independents. These losses happened disproportionately, although not exclusively, in safer constituencies where Labour are more resilient to losing votes without costing them parliamentary seats. Some of these losses came in areas were there are high proportions of Muslim voters, and some in safe Remain constituencies and areas with high proportions of students – relatively comfortable territory for Labour in recent years. It highlights the degree of anger among a small but motivated section of voters, particularly Muslim Labour voters, over Starmer not taking a harder line with Israel, and hint at potential dividing lines within the left for a future Labour government.

But overall, the results show that voters are wise to the hollowness of Sunak’s pitch. They are all too aware that even if inflation falls further, the price spikes of recent months are already baked into their household budgets; that if they injure themselves, they may have to wait for months before the NHS can offer them pain-relieving surgery. Why does it matter to them if someone accepts a government bribe to leave for Rwanda as part of a voluntary scheme? From austerity to Brexit, voters were sold a promise of competence, responsibility and prosperity by consecutive Conservative prime ministers. After 14 years of failure, voters on Thursday told the government they have had enough. And Starmer deserves much credit for the promising indicators that many of those who abandoned Labour are returning to the fold.

The question for Sunak must be: why limp on for months as a lame-duck prime minister, when so many voters have made their view clear? As Starmer writes in the Observer this weekend, the most honourable way for him to be respond would be to call a general election.