The Tories are on course to lose more than 1,000 seats in May’s local elections, the party’s chairman has said.
Greg Hands was forced to defend the Government’s record on fulfilling Rishi Sunak’s five pledges in broadcast interviews ahead of the May 4 polls.
He insisted the Government is “still working very hard in delivering” the Prime Minister’s priorities – halving inflation, growing the economy, reducing debt, stopping boats carrying migrants across the Channel, and reducing hospital waits.
In an apparent attempt to manage expectations for England’s local elections, the Cabinet minister told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge On Sunday programme: “The independent expectations are that the Conservatives will lose more than 1,000 seats and that Labour need to make big gains.”
Asked by stand-in host Sir Trevor Phillips whether he might be moved on from his job if the results are dire, Mr Hands said: “Well let’s see Trevor, but what I would say is that those are the independent predictions from the most credible academic sources.”
A Lib Dem source said: “This admission of defeat shows the Conservatives have already thrown in the towel before a single vote has been cast.
“This Conservative Government has crashed the economy, plunged the NHS into the crisis and allowed filthy sewage to be pumped into our rivers.
“Rishi Sunak is facing a Blue Wall bloodbath as people who voted Conservative all their life say never again, and turn to the Liberal Democrats instead.”
Sir Trevor asked him why anyone should vote for the Tories when people are suffering because of the public sector industrial action under their watch.
Mr Hands replied: “Because I think the Government is delivering on overall what the people want us to be delivering on.
“No one is pretending this job is in any way easy.”
Mr Sunak is “personally involved” in trying to tackle NHS backlogs, Mr Hands said when pressed on how he will achieve that in the face of strikes.
He insisted the Government is “definitely not giving up” on the Prime Minister’s pledge, arguing it has “budged” in the pay dispute with nursing unions.
Pressed on Mr Sunak’s pledge on halving inflation, which has gone up since he made it, Mr Hands replied that “nobody has said that it’s going to be easy to tame inflation” as he blamed higher energy prices driven by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
When it was put to him that the UK’s economy showed no growth in February, the Tory chairman said: “Well, in February it was not one of the better results but January grew by 0.3%. And we’ve had the best growth in the G7 in 2021 and 2022.
Asked whether zero growth was something to be proud of, Mr Hands conceded that “we would like to see much stronger growth”.
Phillips confronted the minister about the Home Secretary’s record on tackling illegal immigration, pointing to figures suggesting 83% of the public believe the Government is handling immigration badly.
Suella Braverman is doing a “brilliant job,” Mr Hands insisted.
“I’ve already outlined, Trevor, how we’re getting to grips with the job, and how we are passing the legislation, how we are coming to these agreements with key allies, but sometimes these things will take time.
“And that is why, for example, we are starting returns to Albania, we are getting to grips with this and Suella is right on top of it.”