In a possible dress rehearsal for European elections later this month, British voters took out their frustrations on the two major parties in local elections on Thursday. Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservatives got the worst of it, losing some 1,300 city councilors, and more than 40 councils, compared to their 2015 figures. Labour fared no better, dropping about 80 councilors, and losing control of a half-dozen city councils. For good measure, even pro-Brexit UKIP, big winners four years ago, lost almost all their seats Thursday night.
Sooner or later, all governments suffer from voter fatigue. That the Conservatives would lose seats, after nine years in power, is not surprising. The sheer scale was— worst since John Major’s 2,000-seat pasting in 1995. If voters had intended to send a national message by taking out local Tories, the Prime Minister heard it, loud and clear. “Just get on and deliver Brexit,” she told a decidedly less-than-enthusiastic Conservative crowd at a Welsh party conference afterward.
The opposition Labour Party had expected to do well Thursday, and become the main beneficiary of Tory troubles. Instead, Labour lost seats, seemingly moving embattled leader Jeremy Corbyn further away from power in a general election he so frequently demands. Thursday’s results mirrored Corbyn’s own struggles to make any kind of headway from the Conservatives’ three-year political self-immolation.
However, the Liberal Democrats— the only explicitly anti-Brexit, pro-Remain item on the menu— won big, coming back from near political extinction. Thursday netted them more than 700 city councilors and control of an additional ten councils. The Lib Dems seemed to be winning over support from both pro-Remain Labour supporters as well as disaffected Conservatives. That should worry both major parties, under increasing pressure to deliver something— anything— on Brexit.
After Thursday’s local shellackings, morale isn’t likely to improve, particularly in the Tory camp. May 23 should instead bring more beatings for the Conservative Party. Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party has led fairly consistently (and occasionally by considerable margins) in European Union elections Britons didn’t expect to take part in until last month. Prime Minister May can continue to kick the can down the road on Brexit, but her pact with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland— hanging on for dear life to prevent a Corbyn premiership— runs out in 2022.