What do the UK local election results mean for Brexit?

  • The Conservatives and Labour appear to have been punished by voters in local elections in England and Northern Ireland, over the ongoing Brexit impasse.
  • Smaller parties with a clear anti-Brexit policy have benefited at both parties’ expense.
  • The Conservatives on Friday morning had lost over 430 seats, with the Lib Dems performing particularly well to gain over 300, and Labour losing slightly over 80.
  • The results will put pressure on Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May to find a way through the impasse.
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LONDON – Both the Conservatives and Labour have been punished by voters in the local elections, with results indicating a sour mood towards both parties as anti-Brexit parties swept up large numbers of seats.

The Conservatives on Friday morning had lost over 430 seats, with the Lib Dems performing particularly well to gain over 300 seats and several councils, and Labour struggling to capitalise on the anti-Conservative mood with a current net loss of over 80 seats.

So how will the results affect Labour and the Conservatives’ Brexit strategy?

Labour’s Brexit split deepens

Jeremy corbyn john mcdonnellGetty

The first sign of a possible shift on Brexit following these results has been from Labour, with Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell tweeting on Friday morning that “so far message from local elections- “Brexit – sort it.” Message received.”

This inevitably led to speculation that Labour will soon strike a Brexit deal with Theresa May’s Brexit party.

However, in a sign of quite how difficult such a deal would be to strike, McDonnell immediately sought to clarify that he was not calling for an immediate deal and “simply making the point we need to get on with sorting this out whichever way.”

The difficulty for pro-dealers in the Labour party is that while the party does appear to have suffered in Leave-voting seats, it has also suffered in Remain areas as well, with the biggest winners from these elections appearing to be smaller parties with a clear anti-Brexit position.

Inevitably pro-European MPs in the party have already used the results to suggest that Labour has been punished for not clearly enough backing a new Brexit referendum.

“I think our position on Brexit has failed,” Labour MP Jess Philips tweeted as the results started to come in.

“Bravery is needed. If you combine kindness and effectiveness with a bit of grit most people will respect you even when they don’t always agree.”

In other words Labour’s Brexit divide remains, with both sides still willing to use these results to confirm their pre-existing positions.

For that reason, a deal with May that is capable of winning enough Labour MPs to pass the House of Commons still looks a very long way off.

May doesn’t have the strength to pass a deal

Theresa May will attempt to use these results as a tool to persuade Conservative Members of Parliament to back her Brexit deal. Her argument will be that as long as Brexit remains undelivered then the party will continue to suffer at the polls. As difficult as it is to question this logic, it is not an argument that is likely to win over enough Conservative MPs to get her deal over the line.

The reason for this is that while Tory MPs all agree that the Brexit impasse is hurting them, they remain fundamentally disagreed over what the solution to that impasse is. For a stubborn, but substantial minority of Conservative MPs, the best solution to the impasse is to simply leave without a deal – something which May has twice now demonstrated that she is unwilling to do. And even among those MPs who want to leave with a deal, there is little support for the current deal that May has put on the table.

The other major factor preventing a breakthrough for May is the fact that she has already accepted that she is a prime minister on her way out. By committing not to lead the party into the next stage of Brexit talks, May has lost what little authority she had left in the party. With her Cabinet in apparent meltdown and multiple leadership campaigns already well developed, there is little incentive for Conservative MPs to take the hit for backing an unpopular deal proposed by an unpopular and soon-to-be former leader.

Voters want a clear message on Brexit

One thing is clear from these local election results: the break-up of the traditional two-party dominance is rapidly accelerating.

Elections guru Professor Sir John Curtice told the BBC: “Even without the challenge of the Brexit party or Change UK, the electoral hold of the Conservative and Labour parties on the British electorate is looking now as weak as it has done at any point in postwar British politics.”

That break-up is likely to be reflected even more acutely in the European elections with Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party on course to win the most seats. Indeed Farage’s failure to stand candidates in these local elections is the one factor that probably prevented a complete wipeout for May’s party.

Overall though the trend is clear. After two years of Brexit impasse, voters want a simple solution to Brexit that involves either a clean break from Europe, or the chance to think again and Remain. The message from these elections and the polls for the upcoming European elections, is that those parties which offer those kinds of solutions will benefit, while those that continue to hedge their bets will suffer.

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