Main UK parties take Brexit battering in local elections

LONDON (AFP): Britain’s two main parties suffered a drubbing Friday in English local elections as voters vented their frustration with the prolonged Brexit deadlock.

Prime Minister Theresa May’s governing Conservatives lost control of several local authorities and hundreds of seats but the main opposition Labour party failed to capitalise and also lost ground, with voters turning to smaller parties instead.

The results do not bode well for the two main parties ahead of the European Parliament elections, set to take place in Britain on May 23.

After voting in June 2016 to leave the European Union, Britain was meant to depart on March 29 this year — meaning it would not have contested the European polls.

However, its exit date has been postponed until October 31 because the country’s bitterly divided MPs have been unable to agree on a divorce deal struck with the EU.

The Conservatives and Labour are in talks to try to find a solution that can command cross-party support, although it is highly unlikely an outcome will be found in time to prevent the European elections having to take place in Britain.

With more than 40 percent of councils having declared results, the centrist Liberal Democrats and left-wing Greens — both anti-Brexit — made gains, along with independent candidates.

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the results seemed like “a slap in the face for both the main parties”.

‘Plague on both houses’

Voters went to the polls Thursday in mainly rural and suburban areas of England, with more than 8,000 seats up for grabs.

All 11 local authorities in Northern Ireland were also contested among the province’s own parties.

“The key message from the voters to the Conservatives and Labour is: ‘a plague on both of your houses’,” polling expert John Curtice told the BBC.

The main parties “have been losing votes most heavily in those wards where they were strongest”, he said, with the Conservatives shedding seats in southern England and Labour in the north.

The Conservatives are traditionally strong in the areas that were contested on Thursday and were defending a high water mark, while voters typically give the sitting government a kicking at this mid-term point in the electoral cycle.

But even though the left-wing Labour was fighting from a low base, it too lost ground — a party aiming for government would expect big gains.

‘No confidence’

Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable said voters “no longer have confidence in the Conservatives, but they are also refusing to reward Labour while the party prevaricates on the big issue of the day: Brexit.”

Labour’s Brexit position, described by some commentators as constructive ambiguity, is designed to avoid losing either its Remain or Leave-backing supporters.

Labour MP Owen Smith, who tried to oust leader Jeremy Corbyn in 2016, said the party’s “Brexit fudge” was “melting under the public’s gaze”.

“Voters don’t reward equivocation.”

The problems for the two main parties could worsen at the European elections when they will also face two very newly-formed forces: the Brexit Party — which leads in the opinion polls — and pro-European centrists Change UK.

Neither contested the local elections, the polls coming too soon to find the thousands of candidates.

The local election results could sharpen minds on resolving the Brexit impasse.

Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin told BBC radio: “If the Conservative Party doesn’t mend its ways pretty quickly, the Conservative Party is going to be toast.”