Can Sunak offer hope to his MPs from the local elections drubbing?

Rishi Sunak's Conservative Party has suffered losses in the local elections. Credit: PA

Although these local elections were fought against a backdrop of the worst cost-of-living squeeze in modern history and a crisis in the NHS, that remaking of political allegiances crystallised by Brexit still casts its long shadow.

Because although the early results have been disastrous for the Tories and joyful for the Liberal Democrats, results so far are inconclusive about whether Labour and Sir Keir Starmer can realistically hope and plan for a very substantial majority at the next general election.

And the reason for that is Labour is not apparently making adequate gains in Brexit-backing former "Red Wall" areas, like Hartlepool, Tamworth and Lincoln.

That said, it has taken control of councils it targeted - Stoke-on-Trent and Plymouth - where it needs to win to be credible nationally.

More significantly perhaps, it has won in Medway in Kent, where it has not been in power since 1998. That victory in particular is a potent symbol of the big hope for Starmer's Labour - that the anti-Tory mood of the country is returning to where it was in the mid-1990s, prior to Tony Blair's New Labour landslide in 1997.

Labour believes its margin over the Tories will be eight percentage points, which it says would be its best result in 26 years - and therefore a path to victory.

For Rishi Sunak there is both a "cup half full" and "half empty" interpretation if that vote share transpires when all counts are in.

On the plus side for Sunak, Labour is doing less well than in the national opinion polls, which show it heading for landslide victory. On the negative side for Sunak - in a vote that actually matters rather than a survey - his Tories have performed worse than Boris Johnson's Tories did a year ago.

These elections are of course taking place after the worst of the crises of the Johnson years - the humiliating mass resignations of his ministers in protest at his ethical shortcomings. They also follow Liz Truss's calamitous mini-budget and are during this winter of strikes in the health service, on the trains, and in schools.

Sunak and his Tory strategists will therefore argue any prime minister would face a drubbing at this juncture. With an election maybe 16 months away, his party still has a route to avoid catastrophe, he will claim.

But the evidence for this optimism is scarce, especially in many of the more prosperous parts of the UK - the south, south-west, and erstwhile blue North - where former Tory supporters have turned either to the Lib Dems or simply decided to stay home.

The Lib Dems love that royal Windsor has turned orange on the eve of the King's coronation.

And here is the nightmare for Tory MPs. They can be under no illusion that after 13 years in power, with living standards plunging and public services crumbling, they've been served notice that their time may be up.

What is less clear is whether the threat to their livelihoods as MPs is largely from a Labour revived by Starmer or from tactical voting that could see a Lib Dem surge which endures beyond today's protest vote.

Politics is always about momentum. Labour and the Lib Dems have it, the Tories don't.

The Partygate: The Inside Story podcast brings you fresh revelations and our whistleblowers in their own words in the definitive behind-closed-doors story of how ITV News uncovered one of the biggest scandals of our era