LONDON - British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's Conservatives were facing a bleak set of local election results with voters punishing his party over political scandals, sluggish economic growth and high inflation, early results showed on Friday.

While governing parties often struggle at mid-term elections, the council results in England will be the largest, and possibly last, test of voter sentiment before the next general election which is expected to be held in 2024.

The Conservative Party suffered a net loss of 144 seats on local councils that were up for re-election, the early results showed. The main opposition Labour Party, which is hoping to gain hundreds of seats in a mid-term vote, added 96 seats.

Labour said in a statement that based on these local election results they are on track to win the next general election, while smaller political parties such as the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party also made gains.

The results in the local elections will decide more than 8,000 council seats in 230 local government authorities who are responsible for the day-to-day provision of public services such as bin collections and schools.

Huw Merriman, a junior Conservative transport minister, said it had been a "difficult night and it may get more difficult".

John Curtice, Britain's best-known pollster, said based on the results so far, the Conservatives could face a net loss of about 1,000 seats, which would be in line with the party's most pessimistic forecast.



Sunak has tried to restore the credibility of the Conservatives since he was made prime minister in October following months of economic chaos, strikes, and political scandals.

The Conservatives changed prime ministers three times in the past year after Boris Johnson was ousted partly over parties held in government buildings during COVID-19 lockdowns, and Liz Truss was brought down following a gamble on tax cuts that shattered Britain's reputation for financial stability.

Labour was making gains in some areas that backed leaving the European Union in the 2016 Brexit referendum where the party will need to win over if it wants to win a majority at the next general election.

In early results, Sunak's party lost control of five councils, including Brentwood, North Leicestershire and Hertsmere.

Labour won control of Plymouth and Stoke-on-Trent councils, two key battleground areas regarded as important to the party's hopes of winning the next general election.

Johnny Mercer, a member of parliament for the area, said it had been a "terrible" night for the Conservatives.

The Labour leader Keir Starmer visited Plymouth and Stoke-on-Trent during local election campaigning as the party threw resources into winning back control of the councils.

A full picture of the state of the parties will not become clear until later on Friday when most of the councils will announce their results.

The chairman of the Conservatives in the run-up to the elections said the party could lose about 1,000 seats, a figure that some opposition politicians and political analysts thought was deliberately exaggerated so he could claim the party had performed better than expected when the results were announced.

The last time most of these local election seats were contested was in 2019 when the Conservatives lost more than 1,300 seats, shortly before the then prime minister Theresa May was forced to resign, which had been expected to help limit the losses in these elections.

(Reporting by Andrew MacAskill; Editing by Michael Perry and Jacqueline Wong)