Local elections have delivered a Lib Dem boost – but could force May and Corbyn closer to a Brexit pact

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Hundreds of people are posting pictures of their dogs at polling stations they cast their votes for the UK local elections in a hilarious Twitter trend.

Predictably, Tory Eurosceptics are renewing their calls for May to stand down immediately. ‘She is destroying our party’, one prominent Brexiteer told me

What a difference two years makes. At the 2017 general election, the Conservatives and Labour halted a long-term decline in their combined share of the vote, winning a remarkable 82 per cent between them.

We thought two-party dominance was back. We were wrong. The overnight results from yesterday’s local authority elections in England show that voters deserted both main parties after two years of Brexit deadlock. The duopoly has been broken by Brexit. Our political see-saw, when one party is up and the other down, is stuck, just like Brexit in fact.

The Tories suffered heavy losses, but that was inevitable because they made sweeping gains when the same seats were last fought as David Cameron won a surprise general election victory on the same day. Theresa May has nothing to celebrate but will be relieved that Labour has shared some of her party’s pain by losing seats too, notably in its northern heartlands.

Local elections in the United Kingdom were held on Thursday 2 May 2019, with 248 English local councils, six directly elected mayors in England, and all 11 localcouncils in Northern Ireland being contested. … The seats in Northern Ireland were last regularly contested in 2014.

Labour’s performance was not that of a party on track for victory in the general election Jeremy Corbyn covets, and which might well take place later this year if Brexit has still not happened and May’s successor seeks a new mandate.

The rejection of the big two parties would have been even greater if Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party and Change UK (formerly The Independent Group) had fielded candidates. But they will not escape the threat from the new kids on the block at the 23 May European Parliament elections. The two main parties will fear an even worse night than last night.

The council results will be seen as evidence that voters are furious with the failure to deliver Brexit on schedule in March – a “just get on with it” message, in other words. Predictably, Tory Eurosceptics are renewing their calls for May to stand down immediately. “She is destroying our party”, one prominent Brexiteer told me.

However, the results were not simply a protest at the failure to leave the EU. The  big winners were the re-energised Liberal Democrats, whose clear pitch as the party of Remain and a Final Say referendum, did not stop them making gains in Tory-held areas in the south.

That will worry Labour. It suggests that Corbyn’s strategy of appealing to both Remainers and Leavers, which worked at the 2017 election, is running out of road. Constructive ambiguity, and conflicting signals over whether Labour backs a referendum, have their limits. Labour’s claim to be the only party that can bring a divided country together again looks a bit thin.

The opposition party normally makes gains at local elections; Labour should have done so this time as it did badly when the same seats were last contested. Instead, the party was hit by a Brexit backlash in Leave-voting areas in the North, while the Lib Dems scooped up Remainers in the South. The only crumb of comfort for Corbyn is that a Lib Dem revival could boost Labour’s general election prospects by taking votes away from the Tories.

Vince Cable, who intends to stand down after the European elections, will be able to say he has put the Lib Dems back in business. True, the only way was up because the party suffered its worst local election performance the last time these council seats were contested at the end the coalition. Yesterday’s results will raise Lib Dem hopes that their coalition nightmare may finally be coming to an end.

The Lib Dems will be confident of building on their success at the European elections, and eclipsing Change UK at its first test. The new party’s view that the Lib Dems are going nowhere is now open to question; they are alive and kicking. The council elections are a reminder that Cable’s party has boots on the ground, and 100,000 members. Change UK, which rejected a joint ticket  with other pro-EU parties at the European elections, may need to find a way to mobilise the Lib Dem troops, perhaps in a merged centre party.

Voters, knowing they were not choosing a government, found a way of kicking the big two parties where they could. The Greens, also in favour of a referendum and Remain, made gains and voters elected more than 200 new independent councillors, an endangered species.

The local elections could have an unexpected impact on the Brexit process, by increasing the pressure on the two main parties to reach a compromise agreement when their negotiations reach a critical stage next week.

May and Corbyn are unlikely bedfellows and few MPs gave their talks much chance of success. But the mood music has been more upbeat in the past week and there are signs the two sides might strike a deal on a customs arrangement with the EU. It’s far from certain that such a deal would be passed by the Commons. May and Corbyn may find their MPs in no mood to compromise. But by giving it a try, the two leaders would at least have a chance of addressing the voters’ apparent desire to bring a plague on both their houses.

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