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For Britain’s Tories, Election Losses Are a Wake-Up Call — and an Opportunity

Tellers announce the results of the vote on Brexit in Parliament in London, England, March 13, 2019. (Reuters TV via REUTERS )
The Conservative party would have a real opportunity to stop its bleeding and orchestrate a political resurgence under a new, pro-Brexit leader.

On May 2nd, voters across the U.K. went to the polls to vote in local elections. Given the Conservative government’s continued failure to deliver Brexit, the Tories were long expected to lose big in the vote. Brexit Minister James Cleverly predicted that the party could lose 800 seats of the more than 5,000 it won in 2015. Conversely, many predicted that the opposition Labour party and its hard-left leader, Jeremy Corbyn, would capitalize on Prime Minister Theresa May’s weakness to win scores of seats across the country.

But in the early hours of Friday morning, the biggest losers were both main parties. Surpassing even Cleverly’s dire prediction, the Conservatives awoke to losses of 1,335 seats and control of 49 local councils. Labour lost 86 seats and control of six councils. The far-right United Kingdom Independence party (UKIP) also failed to capitalize on pro-Brexit sentiment, losing 145 seats. The biggest winners? The staunchly pro-Remain, center-left Liberal Democrats (Lib Dems), who won 704 seats and control of twelve councils. The Green party and independents also scored important victories, winning 194 and 661 seats, respectively.

The disastrous results for the Conservatives and tepid support for Labour reflect an electorate growing frustrated with the dysfunction of the political class. The inability of the Conservatives to deliver Brexit and the ongoing turmoil in May’s cabinet amid countless leaksfirings, and turnover no doubt contributed to scores of voters defecting. The Lib Dems managed to make huge inroads in affluent, predominantly Tory-leaning strongholds across southern England, both among pro-Leave and pro-Remain voters. Even in Windsor and Maidenhead, home to Theresa May’s constituency, the Tories lost 15 seats to the Lib Dems and independents.

Not all was disastrous for the Tories, however. The party managed to take some important victories from Labour, notably in pro-Leave, one-time Labour heartlands like the Midlands and North East Lincolnshire, reflecting ire at Labour’s noncommittal, neither-Leave-nor-Remain Brexit stance. The Lib Dem victories are no doubt impressive, but they are not necessarily indicative of growing support for Remain. Just as independents saw wins across the country, Lib Dem wins likely stemmed from a combination of soft-left Remain supporters and a pox-on-both-their-houses attitude from frustrated Conservative and Labour voters alike. After near total wipeout in 2015, the Lib Dems were always expected to make major gains this election, and have traditionally done well in many of the southern shires where they won seats. Success at the local level has not always translated to parliamentary seats for third parties.

Instead, the biggest takeaway from Thursday’s election is the realignment of British party politics. Party strength in the U.K. has traditionally broken down along geographic and class lines, but with growing discontent with the status quo, both parties will have opportunities for electoral success amid the realignment. The once-solidly Labour North hemorrhaged support to the Conservatives, while true-blue Tory heartlands flipped to the Lib Dems and independents. The Green party’s increased vote share across the country also bodes poorly for Corbyn; an ascendant, leftist Labour party would be expected to sweep up those who voted Green, and these dissatisfied voters could cost him crucial votes at the next general election. Nigel Farage’s new Brexit party is predicted to top all major parties in the European Parliament elections at the end of May; should it stand in domestic parliamentary elections, both Conservatives and Labour alike can expect to see defections.

In short, Labour still faces an uphill battle to win in a snap general election. While ChangeUK, the coalition of pro-Remain Labour and Conservative defectors, has failed to galvanize much support, the resurgence of the Liberal Democrats and the Greens and the gradual defection of Labour-voting Leave supporters in the North will likely force Corbyn to clarify the party’s hazy Brexit stance. Deputy Leader Tom Watson and other Labour grandees are already clamoring for a second Brexit referendum, yet formally adopting such a policy would likely bleed further support to pro-Brexit parties. Corbyn will still have to battle the Lib Dems for Remain supporters, especially in London and the South, and must still contend with the SNP in Scotland. That he managed to botch these local elections against a historically dysfunctional government also raises further questions about his electability.

No doubt, these results are a damning indictment of Theresa May’s premiership and her government’s handling of Brexit. That said, Labour has failed to capitalize on the electorate’s displeasure with May, and the growing Tory support in the Midlands and North gives Conservatives a way forward. Just as Margaret Thatcher managed to win over the average “Essex man” and lead her party to three successive victories, the Tories would have a real opportunity under a new, pro-Leave leader to sweep up dissatisfied former Labour voters, halt the defections to Farage’s Brexit party, and restore confidence in conservatism. They might have been this election’s biggest losers, but they could be the biggest winners at the next election if they play their cards right.

Chris Gavin is a government-relations associate at the Hudson Institute.

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