Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative Party made major gains in local elections across Britain on May 4, suggesting a comfortable victory for the Tories in next month’s general election. Usually, it is opposition parties that do well in local elections, as voters punish power holders for unpopular policies. But despite being in government for seven years, last week the Conservatives won their biggest share of the vote in local elections since 1992. Is May a political mastermind? No. Her victory owes more to the collapse in support for the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and the chaos that continues to engulf the main opposition Labour Party.
Although local results cannot perfectly anticipate the outcome of a national election, last week’s ballot certainly bodes well for May’s chances of improving her current parliamentary majority of 17 in the general election on June 8. But May’s prospects are not as rosy as they first appear.
Despite gaining 563 new councilors, compared to Labour’s loss of 382, the Conservatives received just 38 percent of the vote. Academics suggest that this would translate into a majority of approximately 48 in next month’s general election, far short of the landslide victory predicted by much of the Tory-leaning British press. Yet even a modestly improved majority would be enough for May to steamroller her version of Brexit and her domestic reforms through Parliament. As Britain tackles the titanic task of negotiating its departure from the European Union, it needs a strong parliamentary opposition, not least to represent the 48 percent of voters who did not support Brexit in the 2016 referendum.
May won Britain’s local elections by taking territory formerly occupied by UKIP. Britain’s exit from the EU has been UKIP’s guiding mission since the party’s inception in 1993. Last year’s referendum result robbed the party of its purpose. Channeling the ghost of Margaret Thatcher, May’s promise on the eve of local elections to be a “bloody difficult woman” in negotiations with the EU attempted to reassure UKIP supporters they could trust the Tories to deliver the hard Brexit they crave. This tactic worked. UKIP lost 145 of their 146 council seats. But while snatching seats from UKIP is sound electoral politics for May, an influx of UKIP members into Tory ranks will make governing more challenging for the Tories.
May’s flirtation with hard Brexit is a campaign strategy. After the general election her negotiating position will likely soften. Retaining preferential access to the EU market — essential for British jobs and growth — will require compromise with Brussels on immigration and other red-flag issues for hard-core Brexiters. But May’s attack on “Brussels bureaucrats” has raised expectations of a clean break with Europe that will lead to accusations of betrayal should she seek an amicable divorce. If she does not soften her line on Europe, May risks losing the political center ground, inhabited by the majority of British voters.
Since taking over from David Cameron, May has enjoyed an extended honeymoon with the British electorate. Her approval ratings are higher than for any party leader since the late 1970s. May’s popularity stems from her cautious, reassuring image as the face of managed change. Squandering her reputation for pragmatism and moderation to win over the most extreme Brexiters would be political folly. As May herself warned the Tories in 2002, the Conservatives cannot expect to win elections if they are perceived as a “nasty party” pandering to a narrow nativist base.
Thus far, May has not been too concerned about losing the center ground owing to Labour’s self-cannibalization. On May 4, Labour received the worst result for a main opposition party since the 1980s. Labour should have done better. During her nine months in Downing Street, May has achieved very little. She is vague about what she will do with another five years in power after the general election. The Tory government have presided over seven years of unpopular austerity policies. And when May says, “Brexit means Brexit,” British voters are no clearer on the specifics of her negotiating position almost a year after the referendum. But Labour has been too busy fighting internal battles to capitalize on May’s weaknesses. It is unlikely Labour will do much better in the general election than they did in the locals.
Britain’s third party, the Liberal Democrats, also had a disappointing night on May 4. As the most pro-European of Britain’s national parties, analysts expected the Lib Dems to make gains by winning support from voters who want to remain in the EU. But although the Lib Dems saw their vote share increase by 3 percent, they actually lost council seats. Not for the first time, the Liberal Democrats were punished by an electoral system that disproportionately rewards Labour and the Conservatives. Even so, the modest swing to the Lib Dems suggests they will not make major gains in the general election.
May’s main concern with the general election, now less than a month away, is how to play down the hype of a Tory landslide that could cause Tory voters to stay at home on June 8. The main concern of British voters should be that a weak and fragmented opposition will fail to hold accountable a Tory government with a comfortable majority undertaking negotiations with the EU that will determine the U.K.’s fate for decades to come. As voters in Japan well know, a weak opposition is bad for democracy.
Tina Burrett is an associate professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo.
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