A few months ago Sir Keir Starmer’s team had hoped that Thursday’s local elections would be the moment when the British public punished Boris Johnson for his erratic handling of the worst pandemic in living memory.
Instead, they are now braced for a day of judgment on Starmer’s leadership of the opposition Labour party.
So-called “Super Thursday” will also see elections for the assembly in Wales and parliament in Scotland, where the Scottish National party is hoping to gain a majority to boost its campaign to secure a second independence referendum.
At the start of the year, Labour was neck and neck with the governing Conservatives in opinion polls. But the Tories have surged ahead in recent months as the public becomes more optimistic that the worst of the pandemic is over for the UK — thanks to the government’s efficient vaccination programme.
Starmer and Johnson both hit the campaign trail on Wednesday in a final attempt to enthuse voters ahead of Thursday’s local polls, the first major test of the electorate since the 2019 general election.
Johnson, the Conservative prime minister, took a bike ride in Stourbridge in the West Midlands alongside Andy Street, the region’s mayor.
Starmer visited Pontefract in West Yorkshire before heading south to the West Midlands and finally to the West of England.
Thursday will see an unusually large number of local elections because last year’s voting was delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
As a result there will be contests for 4,500 council seats in 143 local authorities as well as races in Scotland, Wales, London’s assembly and 12 mayoralties. These include the West Midlands, West Yorkshire, Greater Manchester and the Tees Valley. There will also be elections for police and crime commissioners.
On top of this will be the by-election in Hartlepool, a parliamentary seat deep in Labour’s “red wall” that is expected to switch to the Conservatives.
The Tories are also expected to extend their lead in the Tees Valley and West Midlands mayoralties in a further blow to Starmer.
Speaking on Wednesday morning, Johnson praised the incumbent Tory mayors in those two regions and tried to play down the chances of a Conservative victory in Hartlepool.
“These are tough contests and Hartlepool in particular you’d have to say, that hasn’t been Conservative since its inception — 46 years ago or whatever it was,” he said. “So I think that will be a very tough fight.”
Starmer told reporters in Pontefract that the party was “in good spirits” ahead of the contest. “Whatever the results are, I will take responsibility, as I take responsibility for everything in the Labour party,” he said.
The Tories have tried to play down expectations, pointing out that the party made spectacular gains when some of these seats were last contested in 2017.
Labour is expected to gain several hundred council seats overall, from a much weaker national position than the Tories, and is expected to cruise to victory in some of its metropolitan strongholds such as London and Greater Manchester.
It could also edge forward in Wales, where it could end up with a narrow majority in the Senedd in Cardiff, potentially wiping out the Liberal Democrat presence.
But all eyes will be on whether Labour is beaten in Hartlepool, Tees Valley and the West Midlands, and whether it loses ground in the crucial “red wall” councils that the party has controlled for nearly a century.
If the Tories win Hartlepool, it will be only the second time in 50 years that a sitting party of government has won a by-election.
A poor set of results will prompt an outright rebellion by many left-wingers in the party, who have felt sidelined ever since the expulsion of former leader Jeremy Corbyn. But there is also anxiety among many other MPs. “There’s no fight in us at all. If he [Starmer] and his team don’t wake up it’s irrelevant,” said one shadow minister.
Crucial red wall battlegrounds include Rotherham, Barnsley, Amber Valley, Rossendale, Durham and West Lancashire.
Labour will also be hoping to end Tory majorities gained by Johnson’s party in 2017 in Lancashire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire county councils.
The Lib Dems are hoping for progress in counties such as East Sussex, Hampshire, Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire, where they have stayed in second place in recent years.
The SNP is hoping for an outright majority in the Holyrood parliament, which it would wield as proof of the appetite for a second referendum on independence. The Tories and Labour are locked in a race for second place.
Key seats to watch include Dumbarton, a key SNP target where Labour’s Jackie Baillie has a majority of just 109. There is also a crucial tussle in Edinburgh Central, where the SNP’s Angus Robertson, the party’s former Westminster leader, hopes to seize the seat previously held by former Tory Scotland leader Ruth Davidson.