Rishi Sunak’s Tories are braced for a bruising set of local election results as votes continue to be counted across England.
The contests were the first to be fought under new rules requiring voters to carry photographic ID, and the elections watchdog said “regrettably” some people were turned away from polling stations as a result.
The Electoral Commission said that overall the elections were “well run” but the requirement to carry photo ID posed a challenge and some people were unable to vote as a result, although detailed work will be needed to understand the scale of the problem.
“It will be essential to understand the extent of this impact, and the reasons behind it, before a final view can be taken on how the policy has worked in practice and what can be learned for future elections.”
Opponents of the voter ID requirement claimed thousands of people had been turned away.
Tom Brake of Unlock Democracy, who is leading a coalition of groups opposed to the policy including the Electoral Reform Society, Fair Vote UK and Open Britain, said: “Today has been a dark day for British democracy.
“Reports from all over the country confirm our very worst fears of the impact of the disastrous policy which has been made worse by the shambolic way it has been introduced.”
The Association of Electoral Administrators’ chief executive Peter Stanyon said there had been “many anecdotal reports” of people being unable to vote but “it is still too early to gauge how introducing voter ID has gone”.
The results of the elections will be keenly studied with the prospect of a general election in 2024.
The Tories expect a difficult night but have sought to manage expectations by pointing to forecasts by academic experts Professors Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher which suggest they could lose more than 1,000 seats if things go badly.
The Tories will seek to portray any defeat below that scale as better than expected – although the loss of hundreds of councillors would not bode well for Mr Sunak’s hopes in the general election.
Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris said the party had experienced a “bit of a blip” following the turmoil in No 10 which saw Boris Johnson and Liz Truss ousted before Mr Sunak took office.
He attempted to present the expected losses as mid-term blues for the Tories, telling Sky News : “The British people are very sensible group of folk and they understand what’s important.
“Occasionally they like to give political parties a bit of a reminder of who the politicians serve. Certainly when you get into being mid-term in a government you get quite a bit of that.”
The analysis by professors Rallings and Thrasher suggested gains of more than 700 for Labour would represent Sir Keir Starmer’s party’s best performance for at least a decade, which could put them on the path to becoming the largest party at a general election – even if short of an overall majority in the Commons.
But 250 gains or fewer would be disappointing, while under 150 extra councillors would be “effectively a step backwards”, the academics said.
“It’s going to be a long night and the full picture of results will not form until well into Friday afternoon but we expect to make gains and show we’re making the progress in the places we need to win at the next election.”
The Tories are nervous about the situation in Bolton, where they were the biggest party, and – ahead of coronation weekend – they also fear for their control in Windsor and Maidenhead.
Labour expects to make significant gains in Plymouth and take control of the council in the city which contains Veterans Minister Johnny Mercer’s seat – a key general election target.
Meanwhile, the Lib Dems hope to make further cracks in the Tory “blue wall” in southern England.
Liberal Democrat deputy leader Daisy Cooper said: “I have knocked on countless doors in recent weeks and heard real anger and frustration from voters who are sick and tired of being taken for granted by this Conservative government. Tonight their voices will be heard.”
In early results:
– The Tories lost Brentwood to no overall control, with the Lib Dems making three gains.
– Labour replaced the Tories as the largest party in Hartlepool but failed to gain a majority on the council.
– Labour retained control of Sunderland.
– Labour held Halton.
– The Tories held Broxbourne.
– The Conservatives picked up a seat from Labour as they held Harlow.
The row over the voter ID requirement follows a change in the law requiring voters to have a photograph document from a defined list to protect against the potential risk of electoral fraud, despite there being no evidence of a large-scale problem.
The Government has estimated that about 4% of Britain’s population – or two million people – were unlikely to have a valid form of photo ID to vote.
Passports, driving licences and blue badges are among the IDs permitted, as are the free certificates that could be applied for ahead of the vote.
Photo ID will be required in England during future general elections under the policy.
On Thursday, more than 8,000 council seats were up for election across 230 local authorities, while mayors were being chosen in Bedford, Leicester, Mansfield and Middlesbrough.
The last time the same council seats were contested was in May 2019, when the Tories performed poorly under Theresa May as she struggled with Brexit and Labour under Jeremy Corbyn also suffered.
The Conservatives lost more than 1,300 council seats and majority political control of 44 councils, meaning they had less to lose on Thursday than they might have done.
About a quarter of the votes are expected to be counted overnight, with the rest counted during the day on Friday.