Labour has conceded defeat in the Hartlepool by-election as the Tories head for a historic victory which will deliver a hammer blow to Sir Keir Starmer’s leadership.
Shadow transport secretary Jim McMahon said ‘it is pretty clear from the way that the ballots are landing that we are not close to winning this’ and ‘we haven’t got over the line’.
Vote counting is still underway in the constituency which has been held by Labour since its inception in the 1970s and an official result appears to be some way off.
But Mr McMahon left no room for doubt in his assessment, with Tories at the count believing they could win with a majority of several thousand while Labour sources said they feared they had lost ‘by miles’.
Should the result be confirmed, it would represent a massive victory for Boris Johnson and a disastrous start to the UK-wide ‘Super Thursday’ elections for Sir Keir.
A defeat will pile the pressure on Sir Keir and reignite questions over whether he can reverse Labour’s fortunes ahead of the 2024 general election.
Labour is now bracing for further bad news, with party sources predicting ‘grim’ results in council elections in England.
Early declarations in some council seats in the north east of England suggested Labour was struggling.
Sir Keir is said to be preparing a brutal reshuffle of his shadow cabinet within days as he tries to kickstart his leadership, with shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds and shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth tipped for demotion.
Sir Keir is sounding out high-profile figures, including former work and pensions secretary Yvette Cooper, about a possible return to the Labour frontbench.
Frontbenchers regarded as strong media performers such as shadow schools minister Wes Streeting are being tipped for promotion.
Sir Keir has said he will ‘carry the can’ if the local election results go badly, but he is expected to try to revitalise his top team amid concerns many of them have been under-performing.
Another being lined up for the sack is thought to be shadow Commons leader Valerie Vaz, with a reshuffle pencilled in for the next week.
In a sign that Sir Keir is expecting a difficult set of results, a Labour source said after the polls closed: ‘These were always going to be tough elections for Labour. Keir has always been honest about the mountain we must climb to rebuild trust to win the next general election.’
The Hartlepool by-election outcome will be seen as a barometer for how the two main parties could do as the results of various elections trickle in over the next four days.
The Conservatives had earlier sought to play down expectations in Hartlepool, with a Tory source saying it was ‘looking tough’ as ‘Labour have flooded the area with activists’.
However, Pensions Minister Guy Opperman had painted a much more optimistic picture for the Tories as he predicted on Twitter shortly after the polls closed that Jill Mortimer would win the seat for the Conservatives.
Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick told Sky News that it would be ‘remarkable’ if the Tories win the seat as he added: ‘But if it is even close, I would say that is a really, really serious indictment of Keir Starmer.’
In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon faces a nervous wait to find out if the SNP has won a Holyrood majority – seen as crucial to her hopes of forcing a second independence referendum.
Jim McMahon, the shadow transport secretary, has conceded defeat in the Hartlepool by-election, with the Tories heading for an historic victory
The seat has been held by Labour since its inception in the 1970s but the Conservatives believe they could win it with a majority of several thousand. Party observers look on as ballot papers are counted at the Mill House Leisure Centre
The Hartlepool by-election result will be viewed as a barometer for how Labour and the Tories could do in the UK-wide ‘Super Thursday’ elections, with results due to trickle in over the next four days
A win in Hartlepool would represent a massive victory for Boris Johnson, pictured arriving at a polling station with partner Carrie Symonds yesterday
A defeat in Hartlepool will be a hammer blow to Sir Keir Starmer’s leadership of the Labour Party. He is pictured with his partner Victoria as they walked to their polling station yesterday
Voting stopped at 10pm with all eyes now turning first to the result of the Hartlepool by-election. Election officials in the town are pictured waiting for ballot boxes to arrive
Coronavirus protocols mean this year’s election votes will take longer to count than usual. Ballot boxes are pictured being cleaned on arrival at a count in Sunderland
The Tories are hoping for a strong set of results across the UK after a YouGov poll gave the Conservative Party a 10 point lead heading into today’s votes
The coronavirus pandemic resulted in last year’s elections being delayed by 12 months.
That means that two years’ worth of polls took place across the UK today, making for a bumper crop of results.
Voters have had their say on the make-up of English councils, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Senedd as well as in a wave of mayoral contests, including in London.
The Hartlepool by-election is expected to be the first major result announced as social distancing rules and coronavirus protocols like cleaning ballot boxes make counting slower than usual.
Mr McMahon was asked on Sky News if he was conceding the race after Tories said they were increasingly confident of victory.
He replied: ‘Well, it is pretty clear from the way that the ballots are landing that we are not close to winning this despite our best endeavours, despite the hard work of many fantastic volunteers and despite a fantastic candidate who of course is a local GP working at Hartlepool hospital who has been working on the frontline during the pandemic.
‘I think we have given it our all but sometimes you just don’t get over the line on the day.’
Asked again if he was conceding, Mr McMahon said: ‘Well, that is where we are. That is the reality of where we are. We haven’t got over the line, that is quite clear from the ballots.
‘To what extent, it is too early to tell, but that is pretty clear.’
Hartlepool was held by Labour with a majority of 3,595 in 2019, even as other bricks in the ‘Red Wall’ crumbled – in part due to the Brexit Party splitting the Tory vote.
Both Mr Johnson and Sir Keir made three visits to Hartlepool during the campaign in a sign of the importance the by-election represents to their parties.
Opinion polls suggested the Tories were on course to win the seat for the first time ever, with one survey putting the party 17 points ahead of Labour.
Mr Johnson sought to dampen expectations ahead of polling day as he said the contest looked like it would be a ‘very tough fight’.
But a victory in the seat for the Tories would allow Mr Johnson to deliver a hammer blow to his rival Sir Keir.
Defeat in Hartlepool for Labour would inevitably reignite questions over the direction of the party under Sir Keir amid growing discontent among some left-wing activists.
Polling suggested that Labour could lose Hartlepool as well as control of a number of councils across its ‘Red Wall’ heartlands in the Midlands and North of England.
Sir Keir said during the campaign that his rebuild of the party would take longer than 12 months.
He stressed he had taken over the leadership after the party’s worst general election result since 1935 and ‘we’ve got to rebuild into the next general election – that is the task in hand’.
Sir Keir said: ‘This is the first test and we go into that test fighting for every vote, but I never thought we would climb the mountain we have to climb in just one year – it is going to take longer than that.’
However, losing ground instead of gaining it at today’s elections would represent a devastating set of results for Sir Keir as he tries to lay the foundations for a general election victory in 2024.
He said on Wednesday that he would take responsibility, regardless of how the elections play out.
‘I take full responsibility for everything the Labour Party does, including the elections whatever they are tomorrow,’ he said.
‘And for me it’s very important – it’s the same approach I took when I was director of public prosecutions running the Crown Prosecution Service for five years, which is when things go right, the leader takes the plaudits; when they don’t go right, the leader carries the can and takes responsibility.’
Sir Keir’s allies last night said they were expecting civil war to break out in the party if election results are as gloomy as forecast by some opinion polls.
The hard Left of the party were preparing for a possible coup in anticipation, while moderates will argue that Sir Keir must ditch policies first drawn up under Jeremy Corbyn to win back voters.
Alan Milburn, a Labour Cabinet minister under Tony Blair, told BBC Newsnight that the elections should not be seen as a referendum on Sir Keir’s leadership because it was ‘always going to be a long, hard battle back’ after the party’s 2019 collapse.
However, Mr Milburn said ‘this is the time to inject new blood’ into the shadow cabinet because some of its current members are ‘barely visible’.
He warned the party is in a state of ‘crisis’ and said: ‘The truth is that the Labour Party, and social democratic parties, they need to reinvent themselves.
‘It’s not a question of just rebuilding – it’s a process of reinvention. There needs to be a big programme change, a big policy change and I think a big procedure change.’
Voters today had their say on the make-up of English councils, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Senedd as well as in a wave of mayoral contests, including in London
Nicola Sturgeon faces a nervous wait to find out if the SNP has won a Holyrood majority – viewed as crucial to her independence push
Shadow public health minister Alex Norris said Labour did not expect to recover from its 2019 general election loss within 18 months.
Asked whether Sir Keir would be to blame for a defeat in the Hartlepool by-election, Mr Norris told Sky News: ‘No, not in the slightest. Let’s not prejudge it, for one.
‘But what Keir is going to be very clear about, what we are clear about as a Labour Party is that this is going to be a no-excuses election for us.’
But in a sign of the discontent on the Labour left, MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle appeared to mock the party’s attempts to change its image.
He said: ‘Good to see valueless flag waving and suit wearing working so well… or not?’
The comment is a reference to a leaked strategy document which suggested Labour must make ‘use of the flag, veterans, dressing smartly’ to win back voters in ‘Red Wall’ seats in the party’s former industrial heartlands.
Bullish Conservative MPs who had been on the ground in Hartlepool claimed they had noticed a ‘clear swing’ towards their party as they predicted a bad night for Sir Keir.
‘If you thought the bottom of Labour was Corbyn then you are wrong,’ one told MailOnline.
Labour activists doorknocking in the constituency sounded relentlessly glum.
‘We are suffering from Long Corbyn,’ one senior figure said in a grim coronavirus analogy. ‘It is going to be really difficult… we will find out tonight whether we have hit bottom.’
Sir Keir voted at a polling station inside a community support centre in north London today, accompanied by his wife Victoria. Asked by a reporter how he was feeling, the Labour leader said: ‘Good.’
Sir Keir tweeted when the polls closed: ‘Huge thank you to all the incredible Labour Party members who have given up their time to campaign in these elections. You’re an inspiration.’
Mr Johnson had tried to temper the expectations of Tory activists earlier this week after he said the elections would be ‘very tough’.
‘I think when we stood last time for many of these council seats we were at a particularly high watermark, and we’ll be fighting for absolutely every vote,’ he had said.
The elections came after Mr Johnson faced a number of weeks of damaging headlines over the Covid crisis, a Whitehall lobbying row and controversy over the refurbishment of his Downing Street flat.
Many senior Tory figures believed the rows were only of interest in the ‘Westminster bubble’ and they will be hoping that they are proved correct after the nation went to the ballot box.
Meanwhile, in Scotland the SNP will be hoping to have strengthened its position in Holyrood as Ms Sturgeon pushes for a re-run of the 2014 independence referendum.
A number of opinion polls in the run up to ‘Super Thursday’ suggested the SNP was on course to win a majority.
Ms Sturgeon believes winning a majority would give her a mandate to hold another border poll.
Mr Johnson has repeatedly rejected calls for another independence vote, arguing the first one was supposed to be a once in a generation event.
But Ms Sturgeon believes an SNP majority would force the PM to reconsider.
The SNP leader said after the polls closed tonight that it had been ‘an election like no other’ as she laid down the gauntlet to Mr Johnson on independence.
She said: ‘At this election the SNP have also offered the people of Scotland the opportunity to choose their future once the Covid crisis has passed.
‘If, when the ballots are counted, there is a parliamentary majority for that choice then when the crisis has passed that democratic mandate must be respected.’
Authorities have found it difficult to predict when results will come in because they are unsure how long counting will take because of social distancing requirements.
In London, the result of the race for City Hall may come on Saturday but it could potentially be Sunday. Labour incumbent Sadiq Khan is hoping to secure a second term by beating Tory rival Shaun Bailey, pictured arriving at a polling station with his wife Ellie today
The Tories are expected to find out on Friday night if Ben Houchen has held on as Tees Valley mayor. He is pictured alongside Health Secretary Matt Hancock
The results of all of the UK’s elections are not expected to be finalised until Monday.
Most of the seats in the Holyrood election are expected to count during the day on Friday, with results starting at lunchtime and peaking in the evening.
However, some areas are expected to count votes during the day on Saturday, with results due from lunchtime.
Results from the eight regional proportional representation top-up seats are expected on Saturday night.
Counting for the Welsh Assembly elections is expected to take place on Friday with results in the afternoon and evening.
In London, the result of the race for City Hall may come on Saturday but it could potentially be Sunday as Labour incumbent Sadiq Khan tries to secure a second term by defeating Tory rival Shaun Bailey.
The Tories are expected to find out on Friday night if Ben Houchen has held on as Tees Valley mayor, in what is seen as a key race and a barometer for how the party is performing in the former ‘Red Wall’ constituencies that Labour lost to the Tories in the 2019 general election.
The parties will face another by-election if Labour MP Tracy Brabin succeeds in her bid to become West Yorkshire mayor, as expected.
It means she will stand down from her Batley and Spen constituency, which she held in 2019 with a small majority of 3,525 over the Tories.
Labour figures have suggested the party could delay holding a by-election until the autumn in a bid to avoid losing another brick in the ‘Red Wall’.
Elections took place at 143 English councils, with 19 expected to count votes overnight and the majority counting during the day on Friday.
The results of 39 police and crime commissioner elections in England and Wales are expected to be announced across Friday, Saturday and Sunday.