The Conservatives lost hundreds of council seats, but their collapse is only just beginning - GulfToday

The Conservatives lost hundreds of council seats, but their collapse is only just beginning

John Rentoul

@JohnRentoul

Chief Political Commentator, The Independent; visiting professor, King's College, London.

Chief Political Commentator, The Independent; visiting professor, King's College, London.

Theresa-May-750

Theresa May. File

The Conservatives didn’t do as badly in the local elections as they might have done. They lost hundreds of council seats, but that is what unpopular governing parties do. Estimates of how the whole of Great Britain might have voted if there had been elections everywhere, including London, Wales and Scotland, suggest that the Tories and Labour ended about equal.

The BBC’s projected national vote share put the Tories and Labour on 28 per cent and the Liberal Democrats on 19 per cent. That means both main parties are down from tying on 35 per cent last year, while the Lib Dems are up three points. The only reason the Tories lost so many seats is that they were last contested in 2015, the high water mark of David Cameron’s electoral success.

This has confused the Labour Party, with many of its “stop Brexit” tendency blaming Jeremy Corbyn for refusing to adopt a clearer policy in favour of a new referendum. But a shift towards Remain might have lost more votes than it would have gained. As it was, the party lost seats to the Tories in Leave areas while losing seats to the Lib Dems in Remain areas. It may be that Corbyn’s fudge is the best way to maximise the Labour vote, and that Labour did badly because the voters don’t think much of Corbyn himself.

The confusion was illustrated by John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, who tweeted that the message from local elections was, “Brexit – sort it,” and his response: “Message received.”

This provoked speculation that Labour was about to react to the “plague on both your houses” sentiment by reaching agreement with the government on a customs union Brexit deal. Which caused a flurry among the second referendum crowd that the party was about to sell the country down the Tory Brexit river.

Labour is the party that is in favour both of leaving the EU and of staying in. But that is a detail. The Conservatives are now the party that promised to take us out of the EU and failed to do so. They started to pay the price for that on Thursday, but managed to contain the damage.

They were aided not just by Labour’s unpopularity, but by the absence of a clear pro-Brexit alternative. Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party was formed too late to stand in the local elections and Ukip was standing in only one in six seats.

The pressure for protest against Theresa May for betraying Brexit found many other forms of expression. Independent candidates did unusually well – accounting for 25 per cent of the total national vote, which is, excluding Ukip, the highest score for decades. Many councils reported a lot of spoilt ballots, with plenty of examples on social media of voters writing “Brexit” and “Traitor” on their papers.

Finally, turnout was down a couple of points from last year, which suggests that some Brexit-supporting Tory voters stayed at home – possibly offset by highly motivated pro-EU voters turning out for the Lib Dems.

In three weeks’ time, the protest against the government’s failure to take us out of the EU will find full expression in the European parliament elections. Farage’s party is already nine points clear of all rivals in the latest opinion poll, with Labour trailing in second place. If the Lib Dems continue to advance, the Tories could be pushed into fourth place.

In my view, that will be just the beginning. I do not believe that Corbyn will agree on a Brexit deal with Theresa May. Why should he help the Tories get out of the deep hole in which they find themselves? As McDonnell’s scalded-cat impression suggested, the Labour leadership would face a huge revolt from party members if it enabled a Tory Brexit. True, a customs union deal would split the Tories, but it would split Labour too, so why should Labour not just sit on its hands while the Tory party implodes?  

I think it’s unlikely that we will leave the EU for many years, if ever, and the consequences of that for the Conservative Party could be terminal. If I hadn’t just written a diatribe against the word, I would say the Tories face an existential crisis.