Labour blame Covid as party's post mortem deepens after thrashing

Now Labour blame Covid! Party says Keir Starmer couldn’t ‘set out his vision’ for the country’ because pandemic ‘restricted his opportunities’ as party’s post mortem deepens after historic electoral thrashing

  • Labour was thrashed in the Hartlepool by-election with Jill Mortimer securing a majority of almost 7,000
  • Tory Ben Houchen won a second term as mayor of Tees Valley with a whopping 73 per cent share of vote
  • Conservatives gained control of councils including Northumberland, Nottinghamshire, Dudley and Harlow
  • Shadow home secretary says pandemic has ‘restricted opportunities’ for Sir Keir Starmer to ‘set out vision’

The Labour Party today blamed the coronavirus pandemic for ‘restricting’ the opportunities’ for its politicians to campaign across Britain after the Conservatives racked up a string of stunning poll victories in the local elections.

The post-mortem deepened for Sir Keir Starmer’s party today with results now in from 84 of 143 English councils. The Tories recorded a net gain of seven authorities and 173 seats, while Labour had a net loss of four and 164. 

Labour was thrashed in the Hartlepool by-election, with Jill Mortimer securing a majority of almost 7,000, while Tory Ben Houchen won a second term as mayor of Tees Valley with a whopping 73 per cent share of the vote.

And the Conservatives gained control of a series of councils, including Northumberland, Nottinghamshire, Dudley, Harlow and Nuneaton and Bedworth – reversing the mid-term slump often suffered by governing parties.

With the Tories also winning seats across the West Midlands, senior figures were increasingly confident that the region’s mayor Andy Street will secure a second term in office when returns there are announced today.

It comes as counting started again this morning in the Scottish Parliament election. With 48 constituency results declared yesterday, the SNP had 39 seats, Liberal Democrats four, Conservatives three and Labour two. Some constituencies are still to be counted today, when the crucial regional list results will also be declared.

Also this morning, Labour’s shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds told breakfast TV that the pandemic had ‘restricted the opportunities’ for the party leader Sir Keir to ‘set out his vision’ for the country.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer leaves his North London home today following the poor results for Labour in the elections

Prime Minister Boris Johnson at Jacksons Wharf in Hartlepool, County Durham, yesterday following MP Jill Mortimer’s victory

Labour supporters at the P&J in Aberdeen yesterday as ballot papers are counted for the Scottish Parliamentary Elections

Polling station staff count votes for the Hartlepool parliamentary by-election at the Mill House Leisure Centre yesterday

He told Times Radio: ‘Keir has been in a situation over the past year where, in the national interest by the way, he has been providing that constructive opposition to the pandemic. And that was absolutely right.

‘At a point of national crisis, yes of course you criticise the Government when it was appropriate to do so but it was also appropriate to do things like support the Government on the furlough scheme or supporting the Government on its public health messaging and not, for party political reasons, trying to create confusion around that.

How Tories could win 36 more Labour seats 

The collapse in support for the Brexit Party may allow the Conservatives to snatch dozens more Red Wall seats.

Boris Johnson’s historic by-election victory in Hartlepool came after thousands of Nigel Farage’s old voters switched sides.

At the last election in 2019, Labour managed to cling on to the constituency with 15,464 votes as Leavers were split between the Tories and Brexit Party – which picked up 11,869 and 10,603 votes respectively.

But this time support for Mr Farage’s party – now renamed Reform UK – dwindled to just 368 votes, allowing Mr Johnson to clean up with a majority of 6,940.

A Daily Mail analysis has found there are a further 36 Labour seats across the country where the party’s lead over the Tories in 2019 was smaller than the number who voted for the Brexit Party.

Alarm bells will be sounding in Labour HQ about if these are the next bricks in the Red Wall to fall.

In Barnsley East in South Yorkshire, Labour’s Stephanie Peacock has a majority of 3,217. However, there were 11,112 Brexit Party voters who could help the Tories snatch the seat at the next election.

Labour former Cabinet minister Yvette Cooper beat the Tories with a wafer-thin majority of 1,276 in Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford in West Yorkshire last time round.

But she faces the danger that the 8,032 people who voted for the Brexit Party could switch to the Tories and unseat her.

Five serving shadow Cabinet ministers are among the Labour MPs with seats on the list of 36.

Former party leader Ed Miliband has a majority of 2,370 in Doncaster North in South Yorkshire but the Tories will be looking to win over some of the 8,294 Brexit Party voters.

Other frontbenchers at risk are Labour’s defence spokesman John Healey, Shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds, work and pensions spokesman Jonathan Reynolds and shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Bridget Phillipson.

‘What that has also meant is that it’s restricted the opportunities for Keir to set out his vision.’

Mr Thomas-Symonds said he disagreed with former Labour frontbencher Khalid Mahmood MP’s comments about the party being ‘captured’ by the ‘London-based bourgeoisie’, pointing to election successes in Wales.

‘We did that because we had a set of priorities that spoke to the priorities here of the people – we have to now transfer that across into England,’ he added.

Mr Thomas-Symonds said there would be a policy review in a bid to reconnect with voters,and that in places like Hartlepool and its traditional heartlands elsewhere, people ‘do not now see Labour as answering’ their concerns.

He added: ‘That’s now what we have to reflect on and why we have to change. Keir has started that process of change over the past 12 months, he’s led very courageously on things like tackling anti-Semitism in the Labour Party – now it is a question of moving on, having that review of our policies, economically setting out the difference that we will not go back to the insecure economy of the past and reimagine our economy.

‘And also make sure we are changing our party so that our party is connected in communities up and down the country – that is the challenge and we are determined to do it.’

The shadow cabinet member defended Labour’s criticisms of so-called ‘sleaze’ in Government and said the party ‘absolutely have to hold the Conservatives to account’ when it came to alleged ‘cronyism’ when handing out contracts and the Prime Minister’s spending on his Downing Street flat renovations. 

Also today, Environment Secretary George Eustice said Brexit and the success of the vaccine rollout had helped the Conservatives to win votes off Labour.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘When it comes to the really big breakthrough in the Hartlepool by-election and the election of Ben Houchen as well (as Tees Valley Mayor), I think really it is a case of parts of this country feel they have elected Labour for a very long time, they feel taken for granted.

‘I think the Brexit decision and the wrangling over that in recent years has focused minds in that they have questioned whether the Labour Party was really in touch with their priorities. And of course the rollout of the vaccine has been successful and I think people feel positive and that they can see a way out of this terrible pandemic we have been enduring.’

Put to him that ‘crises favour incumbents’, Mr Eustice replied: ‘I’m not sure that is the way I would view it.’

Now, Ministers have predicted that Boris Johnson could rule longer than Margaret Thatcher as results showed the Tories could take 36 more Westminster seats from Labour at the next General Election.

They believe there has been a permanent shift in the UK’s political identity and claimed Mr Johnson – who has been the premier since July 2019 – could outlast Margaret Thatcher’s 11 years in Downing Street, The Times reports.


They believe the Tories must establish an advantage by winning the ‘culture wars’ and challenging ‘woke’ views. Meanwhile sources told the Guardian Sir Keir is now considering moving Labour out of London to reconnect with ‘Red Wall’ voters.

Landslide re-election for Red Wall-busting mayor 

The man credited with punching the first brick out of Labour’s Red Wall was re-elected as Tees Valley mayor yesterday – after winning 73 per cent of the vote.

Ben Houchen secured 121,964 votes compared with 45,641 for Labour’s Jessie Joe Jacobs, the only other candidate, on a turnout of 34 per cent.

Mr Houchen’s close ties with Boris Johnson have been seen as instrumental in securing ‘freeport’ status for the region and the new northern outpost of the Treasury in Darlington.

He was also hailed for his success in turning around Teesside airport – a central part of his 2017 election campaign in which he vowed to renationalise the ailing hub as part of a ten-year rescue plan. 

Yesterday Mr Houchen, 34, said: ‘We’ve made a fantastic start and I am confident the things we have put in place will bring benefits for everyone across our region, but there is still a long way to go.’

It comes as Mr Johnson set himself on course for a constitutional clash with Nicola Sturgeon if she pushes ahead with plans for a second Scottish independence referendum – which the PM has called ‘irresponsible and reckless’.

Also today, Scotland’s Deputy First Minister John Swinney told BBC Breakfast: ‘It’s very clear that the Scottish National Party is going to be the largest party at the Scottish Parliament by a very significant margin.

‘We don’t know whether we will have a majority yet, that will become clearer in the course of today I would imagine, and that’s an astonishing achievement for us given the fact that we are now about to embark on our fourth consecutive term in government after 14 years and three terms of leading the people of Scotland.

‘I think we’ve had a tremendous success in the election yesterday, we will see what comes in the course of today but the signals are very good indeed and obviously we will then turn our minds to the arrangements post election.’

Asked whether the SNP will continue arguing they have a mandate for a second independence referendum if they win more than 65 seats, he said it will come down to the make-up of the Scottish Parliament and whether there is a majority of candidates who have been elected on a programme to deliver a referendum on independence

He said: ‘I think what matters on the question you asked me about a mandate for a referendum is what is the position of those who are elected to the parliament and will there be an overall majority of members elected committed to the hosting of an independence referendum, and I’m very confident that will be the case.’

Scottish Tory finance spokesman Murdo Fraser said the party has been affected by people voting tactically for other pro-union parties but is confident the Scottish Conservatives will hang on to second place in the Scottish Parliament.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon at the count for the Scottish Parliamentary Elections at the Glasgow Emirates Arena yesterday

Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford is elected as Cardiff West MS after counting at the Cardiff House of Sport yesterday

He told BBC Good Morning Scotland: ‘The early indications are that we have polled very strongly in terms of the regional vote and I would expect that will mean we will come back very close to where we were in 2016 in terms of the number of seats, maybe slightly down, maybe slightly up.’

Now senior MPs claim the Left’s mantle after major success in the polls 

Senior Tories called the Conservatives the ‘true workers’ party’ last night after a series of astonishing electoral gains.

Jill Mortimer took Labour’s Hartlepool stronghold – securing only the fifth by-election win by a governing party since the Second World War.

In a second stunning Tory victory in the North East, Ben Houchen secured a second term as Tees Valley mayor. He grabbed 73 per cent of the vote – up from 39.5 per cent four years ago.

The prospects for a hat-trick of successes were rising last night, as the party made gains across the West Midlands, where Andy Street is also bidding for a second term as mayor.

Boris Johnson, who made a whirlwind visit to Hartlepool yesterday, hailed the result as a ‘mandate for delivery’ on his pledge to ‘level up’ opportunity across the country. In a sign of the town’s remarkable political transformation, well-wishers erected a 30ft inflatable of Mr Johnson outside the counting centre.

On his arrival, the Prime Minister gestured at the inflatable and joked: ‘Who’s that fat bloke over there?’ In the biggest round of local elections for decades, the Conservatives defied the odds to make gains in bellwether seats and traditional Labour areas.

Northumberland, Nottinghamshire, Dudley and Nuneaton and Bedworth all fell to the Tories, having previously been under no overall control.

They also gained Harlow in Essex directly from Labour after seven seats changed hands. Harlow MP Robert Halfon said the result was a sign that the Tories had now usurped Labour as the ‘true workers’ party’.

The former Tory minister added: ‘There has been lots of talk about a vaccine bounce, but it is not just stick a needle in someone’s arm and they will vote Tory – it’s much more than that.

‘Labour has become very metropolitan and its whole campaign has just been negative mudslinging. We have been focusing on people’s priorities like the NHS, skills, keeping fuel duty down and recruiting more police. We are the true workers’ party now. And the Boris brand works – he is liked by people in a way that Labour do not understand.’

Fellow Tory MP Neil O’Brien, who was appointed last week as the Prime Minister’s ‘levelling up’ adviser, said there was a chance to ‘use this incredible moment to change the country for the better’.

Mr Houchen, who has become a galvanising figure for Tory support across the North East, said his thumping win in what was once a rock-solid Labour area was down to a record of delivery following ‘years and years of neglect’. He added: ‘Governments of both colours have failed to invest in this region and this Government under Boris Johnson has invested hugely – people are seeing tangible benefits on the ground.’

Simon Clarke, Tory MP for Middlesbrough South, said political allegiances that saw some communities vote Labour for decades were now shifting.

‘People in the North East have stopped voting Labour ‘because my parents did’,’ he said.

‘They are looking at the two parties clear-sightedly, on the basis of what they offer – and they aren’t going to go back for being taken for granted.’ In Hartlepool, Mrs Mortimer gained 15,529 votes – more than half the total cast.

She said the result – overturning a Labour majority of more than 3,500 at the 2019 general election – was ‘truly historic’. The Tory surge also saw the party pick up a smattering of seats in some of the most solidly Labour areas. In Sheffield, the party won its first seat on the city council since 2008. In nearby north Derbyshire, the Tories won for the first time in Clay Cross.

Elections expert Professor Sir John Curtice said early results showed ‘Leave and working-class areas are moving more strongly to the Conservatives than are Remain and more middle class places’.


Asked whether he is confident the party will hold on to second place he said: ‘Oh yes, I don’t think there’s any doubt of that at all after what I’ve seen so far.

‘Our regional list vote may well even be up on where it was in 2016, and that should translate into seats.’

Meanwhile Mr Eustice said it was the ‘wrong time’ to hold a second independence referendum in Scotland, with chances of an SNP majority in Holyrood on a knife edge.

The Environment Secretary told BBC Breakfast: ‘There was a referendum that took place just a little over five years ago – that was described as a ‘once in a generation’ opportunity to debate these issues and they did.

‘And I think now, as we try and come out of the pandemic and get economic recovery going, it is the wrong time to have yet another divisive referendum and yet another bout of constitutional argument on a matter such as this.’

Put to him that Brexit had a been a ‘fundamental change in British politics’ since the 2014 border poll, Mr Eustice replied: ‘The important thing is that now we have left the European Union – and yes, that was quite a divisive debate, there is no getting away from that.

‘But it does mean that in whole swathes of policy areas, particularly the ones I deal with on the environment, animal welfare, agriculture and fisheries policy, there is now more power going to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland than they have ever had before.

‘Areas of policy that have been occupied and an EU competence over the last 40, 50 years are now policies that these devolved administrations will be able to exercise judgment on and I think that is going to be really important.’

Asked whether the Government would fight any bid for a second Scottish referendum in the courts, Cabinet minister Mr Eustice said: ‘Look, I’m not a lawyer – lawyers will look at these things and I think it is getting ahead of ourselves.

‘We’ll have to see how the results pan out later today. There is a question at the moment over whether the SNP will get a majority or not – we’ll have to wait and see until the results come through.

‘The UK Government’s position is very clear on this. We don’t think there is a case for another referendum, particularly now as we try and chart a way out of the pandemic and get our economy going again.

‘But we will obviously deal with whatever we have to deal with once these elections are settled and once the new Scottish administration decides what it wants to do.’

Mr Eustice also further with his arguments against granting the SNP a second independence referendum in Scotland, calling the idea ‘irresponsible’. The Environment Secretary told Times Radio: ‘We think this is a complete distraction.

‘It would be irresponsible to have another divisive referendum and another bout of constitutional debate at a time when we are charting our way out of this pandemic and when we’ve got to really focus on economic recovery.

‘We think it’s completely the wrong thing to be doing. We had a referendum just a little over five years ago and that settled the issue.’

Labour conceded the results were a ‘shattering’ blow to Sir Keir, who last night admitted his party had ‘lost the trust of working people’.

The dismal results triggered a fresh wave of Labour infighting, with the Left hitting back at claims by Lord Mandelson that the party was suffering the effects of ‘Long Corbyn’ syndrome.

Khalid Mahmood dealt a fresh blow to Sir Keir last night by announcing he was quitting Labour’s front bench.

The former defence spokesman said the party had been ‘effectively captured’ by a ‘London-based bourgeoisie, with the support of brigades of woke social media warriors’.

Labour sources warned that low turnout and voter ‘complacency’ could even cost Sadiq Khan a second term as London mayor – a contest he had been expected to win by a landslide.

But senior Tories remained on alert for results from the Scottish Parliament elections, with Nicola Sturgeon insisting a majority for the SNP would give her a ‘mandate’ to hold a second independence referendum.

On a victory tour of Hartlepool yesterday, the Prime Minister acknowledged that the success of the vaccine programme had played its part in the results, but said it was now up to ministers to deliver for voters on his pledge to ‘level up’ opportunity. 

He said Brexit had allowed the Government to deliver the vaccine rollout ‘faster than other European countries’.

Liberal Democrats and Greens enjoy resurgence 

The Liberal Democrats and Greens put in a strong performance last night as they picked up a string of Labour and Conservative council seats.

The Lib Dems made gains across the country, including in at least one Brexit stronghold. This will be welcome news to leader Sir Ed Davey after the party’s poor performance in the last general election, when then leader Jo Swinson lost her seat. The smaller parties were forecast to take more seats today.

The Lib Dems deprived the Tories of overall control of Cambridgeshire County Council, winning five seats. In Brexit-voting Sunderland, they took four from Labour, while in Sheffield they and the Greens helped deprive Labour of overall control.

In Stockport, the Lib Dems became the largest party, with a one-seat advantage over Labour. They will probably form a minority administration.

The party also made gains in Hull and were also expecting to take seats in Liverpool from Labour, and in Kent and Lincolnshire from the Tories. Sir Ed said: ‘In great swathes of the country the Lib Dems are the only party who can beat the Conservatives.’

The Green Party made good progress, winning at least 40 new seats.

There were nine councils where Green candidates won seats for the first time, including Stockport, Northumberland, Hastings, County Durham and Derbyshire.

Asked about the future, he replied: ‘Number one is continuing the vaccine rollout, making sure that we go from jabs, jabs, jabs, to jobs, jobs, jobs, make sure that we have a strong economic recovery.’

The results came as:

  • Blairite former Labour minister Lord Adonis joined calls for Sir Keir to resign, saying he was a ‘transitional figure’ who lacked ‘political skills at the highest level’;
  • Dominic Cummings hit out at both Labour and the Conservatives, saying that neither was focused on being a ‘serious government’;
  • In a glimmer of hope for Labour, Welsh first minister Mark Drakeford suggested the party could become the first to ever gain an outright majority in the Welsh Assembly;
  • Sir Keir was sharpening his axe for a major reshuffle in which both his Shadow Chancellor and Shadow Home Secretary could get the chop;
  • In a rare reversal, the Conservatives lost control of Cambridgeshire County Council as the Liberal Democrats gained a handful of seats;
  • Miss Sturgeon insisted that an SNP majority remained a ‘very, very long shot’, despite early gains;
  • In a blow to the Tories, the SNP gained the Edinburgh Central seat previously held by former Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson; 
  • Mr Johnson dropped the strongest hint yet that the next easing of Covid restrictions would go ahead on May 17, allowing indoor socialising and stays away from home.

Thursday’s polls were the biggest test of electoral opinion since the 2019 election, with 48million people able to vote in local, regional and devolved elections.

Both main parties admitted being surprised by the scale of the Tory surge, following a campaign in which normal election canvassing was heavily restricted by Covid regulations. Counting was also delayed by health and safety restrictions imposed because of the pandemic.

But, as the results rolled in, it became clear that Mr Johnson had confounded the conventional wisdom that voters use local elections to punish the sitting government.

Mr Johnson said delivering on his pledge to ‘Get Brexit Done’ had been vital in boosting Tory support in Leave-voting areas in the North and Midlands.

He said the results gave him a ‘mandate’ to deliver on the rest of his programme, but studiously avoided any sense of triumphalism.

The scale of the changes in key areas was laid bare in charts produced by Election Maps UK 

Mr Johnson said people ‘can see we did get Brexit done… and I think what people want us to do now is to get on with delivering on everything else’.

In an upbeat assessment he said upgraded economic growth forecasts from the Bank of England suggested there was a ‘prospect of a really strong rebound in the second half of the year’.

A lack of Labour wins to celebrate meant that Sir Keir was forced to deliver his response to the election from his office in London.

The Labour leader appeared rattled by the scale of the setback, but insisted the party was not facing an ‘existential crisis’. He promised to do ‘whatever is necessary’ to rebuild voter trust following a ‘bitterly disappointing’ defeat in Hartlepool.

Lord Mandelson, who once held Hartlepool for Labour, said Jeremy Corbyn still cast a ‘long shadow’ over the party.

The architect of New Labour said the pandemic had also played a key role, with voters more interested in vaccines and the release from lockdown than day-to-day policies.

Richard Burgon, a former Labour frontbencher, claimed Mr Corbyn would have won in Hartlepool, and urged Sir Keir to move further to the Left.

‘We are going backwards in areas we need to be winning,’ he added. ‘Labour’s leadership needs to urgently change direction.’ 

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