Britain's leading pollster says Brexit voters could save Theresa May in the local elections

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  • Voters go to the polls across England today in a major test of Theresa May’s leadership.
  • Leading pollster Sir John Curtice tells Business Insider that the prime minister could win a number of victories as Brexit supporters across England hand the Conservatives crucial gains.
  • Labour, meanwhile, is set to make big gains in London – where a majority of voters backed Remain.
  • However, expectations for Corbyn’s party are high and they may fall short in Brexit-voting areas of the country.

LONDON – Brexit supporters across England could hand the Conservatives crucial gains in Thursday’s local elections and damage Labour’s hopes of a landslide victory, according to polling expert Professor John Curtice.

Polls opened in 150 local authorities across England this morning in what has been billed as a major test of May’s authority. The prime minister’s Conservative party critics, who are already unhappy with her leadership on Brexit, are poised to speak out against her leadership should Labour make major gains across the country.

However, Curtice, the country’s best-known pollster whose general election exit poll accurately predicted last year’s shock result, told BI that the Conservatives could pick up control of key councils which backed the Leave vote, in areas such as Basildon, Pendle, and Rugby.

Labour, is predicted to make big gains in London – where a majority of voters backed Remain. However, it faces an uphill struggle in areas outside of the capital.

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“Watch out for Remain-voting areas swinging towards Labour and Leave-voting areas swinging towards the Tories, much as happened last year,” said Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde.

Labour is currently marginally behind in the national polls but appears to be gaining popularity in London, suggesting they are losing ground elsewhere, he said.

“The difficult nut for the Labour party to crack is outside London. Given that the opinion polls at the moment have a small Conservative lead and given that four years ago when most of the seats were up for grabs there was a small Labour lead, if indeed the Labour party is gaining ground in London it must be losing ground somewhere else.

“Therefore, outside of London, the results could be less good for Labour.”

Labour could struggle in the north

The big test for Labour will be in the north with the key battlegrounds being Amber Valley, Kirklees, and Walsall.

“These are places where the Labour party might gain control from a relatively small swing from the Conservatives,” said Curtice.

“If they don’t pick those up then it will be an indication that outside of London – in more Leave-voting areas – the Labour party has found it more difficult to make an advance.”

Another of the great uncertainties in these elections is what effect the collapse of the UKIP vote will have on the two major parties. Theresa May’s Conservatives hope to pick up most of the benefit, particularly in Leave voting areas. However, the distribution of the UKIP vote may lead to the Tories’ piling up votes in areas where they are too far behind Labour for it to make a difference. At last year’s general election the party fell short of gaining the sort of Leave-voting Labour seats they needed for a majority.

EU citizens could swing the London vote

The key battlegrounds which will largely determine Corbyn’s success or failure in London are Wandsworth and Westminster.

Both are Tory bastions which were flagship councils under Margaret Thatcher, but factors including the EU referendum have pushed up support for Labour, which advocates a softer position on Brexit than the Conservatives.

“It’s pretty clear the Labour party is going to do well in London,” said Curtice. “It’s just a question of how well and whether they will do well enough to win Wandsworth and Westminster. They will do very well to pick up either of them.”

A poll last week suggested that Labour would fail to take Wandsworth and Westminster, but indicated the party was still on track for its best result in 40 years in London. It suggested Labour could pick up 51% of the vote, a positive swing of 5.35% compared to the last time elections were fought in 2014.

One big unknown – particularly in London – is the impact of EU citizens, who Curtice warned could “scupper” the Tories if they turn out in big numbers and vote against the party.

“The other big unknown is – particularly in London – the impact of EU citizens, and whether EU citizens turn up and exercise their franchise. That could possibly scupper the Tories,” he says.

Will Corbyn be hit by the antisemitism scandal?

Another big factor could be how Jewish voters shift in these elections following a series of antisemitism scandals surrounding the Labour party. Curtice said the row could hurt the party, particularly in the London borough of Barnet where the party hopes to gain control of the council on a relatively small swing.

“Yes, it could have an impact,” Curtice says.

“Certainly you can see that in last year’s general election, as compared with other places in London with a substantial Jewish population, Labour didn’t do quite so well. Whether it will affect Labour sufficiently to stop them picking up the one council that they should be able to pick up relatively easily is another matter. Labour could conceivably do as well in Barnet but still win it.”

When will we find out?

Sadiq Khan and Jeremy CorbynGetty

150 councils and just over 4,000 seats are up for grabs, with results expected to trickle in throughout Thursday night and Friday morning.

The final results won’t come in until late afternoon or early evening on Friday. However, we should have a good idea of which way things are going by around 2.00 am, by which time the results in Wandsworth and Westminster will have come in. Victory for Labour in either of these would be hailed as a major success for Corbyn and an equally big setback for May. However, if Corbyn falls short in London and loses ground elsewhere in the country then questions could begin once again about the Labour leadership.

The key figure to look out for once the final results emerge will be the ‘national equivalent vote share’ or NEVS. This will estimate what the two parties’ vote share would have been had the elections taken place right across the country. If Labour are comfortably ahead on this measure then they will be on course for a majority at the next general election. If they’re only narrowly ahead or even behind then that will spell trouble for Corbyn’s hopes of becoming the next prime minister.

Our Brexit Insider Facebook group is the best place for up-to-date news and analysis about Britain’s departure from the EU, direct from Business Insider’s political reporters.Join here.

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