Tories outperform expectations
Councils are still counting votes but it’s clear the biggest casualty overnight is Labour’s ability to manage expectations. On that basis alone Jeremy Corbyn has lost badly. Downing Street will feel very relaxed today. If the pre-briefing was to be believed they were set to experience a rough set of results.
Labour were on the cusp of taking councils in London, many staunch Tory strongholds, meanwhile a number of councils across the country were in touching distance, providing the perfect opportunity to build on Labour’s general election performance.
None of this has happened. In the capital Labour has failed to take Barnet, Hillingdon, Wandsworth and Westminster but have taken control in Plymouth and are now the largest party in Trafford. Conservative victory in Barnet, which was Labour’s easiest target, will immediately invite arguments that Corbyn’s failure to confront anti-semitism has harmed Labour’s electoral prospects.
This is not to understate Labour’s performance in London – it remains a Labour fortress. But a failure to make inroads in other parts of the country will reinforce the notion that Labour is not in a position to secure an outright majority at a general election. Losing control of Derby and Nuneaton, while failing to take Swindon has led election expert John Curtice to tell the BBC that the ‘minuses are more evident than the plusses for Labour’.
Conservative gains in Basildon, Peterborough and Dudley, where a UKIP collapse benefited Tory candidates, highlights Labour’s challenge in appealing to the electorate in Leave voting areas. If UKIP is dead and buried then these results will encourage Conservative MPs.
It will also do nothing to soften the Labour leadership’s resolve to back Brexit for fear of alienating voters in the Midlands and the North, specifically on the thorny issue of immigration.
Overall, Conservative strategists will be pleased that the Tory vote has held up so well, particularly after the recent Windrush scandal and Brexit Cabinet rifts dominated the headlines. After 8 years in Government the Tories still have over 9000 councillors and are the biggest party in local government – indicating the local Tory vote remains resilient. It also vindicates May’s decision to appoint Brandon Lewis and James Cleverly, who will win praise for leading a sharper ground campaign.
But what will worry CCHQ is their inability to break through in large, Remain-supporting metropolitan areas. It explains why the Tories have lost Richmond in leafy South London to the Lib Dems, giving Vince Cable a much needed boost.
It would be foolish to use these results as a strict guide to what will happen at the next general election. The context is likely to be very different and Brexit still needs to play out.
Arguably the results reinforce the status quo, in which neither major party can claim victory. But in psychological terms the Conservatives will get a big boost, believing that despite all of their problems on Brexit and Windrush, they have a platform to build on. Can Corbyn claim the same?
Of course, the next few months will be very rocky for the Government, with crunch votes coming up on Brexit legislation. The risk for the Tories is becoming a party no one can lead except by pushing forward policies which, by definition, cannot command a majority in Parliament. As James Forsyth of the Spectator notes, ‘it will be harder to scare Tory MPs back into line over Brexit with the threat of Prime Minister Corbyn’.