It was the first big test of Theresa May’s Brexit strategy, and the British Prime Minister appears to have passed it.
After a week that began with a public spat with the EU over Brexit negotiations, May’s Conservative Party emerged the big winners in a set of UK local elections that were the first electoral test of her tough stance.
The Prime Minister had spent the week locked in an escalating war of words with Brussels over negotiations for Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, accusing European officials of trying to interfere in the General Election on June 8.
But her decision to pitch her country into a battle with the EU, urging voters to “give me your backing to fight for Britain” appeared to have paid off as council results came in on Friday morning.
The UK Independence Party (UKIP), the right-wing anti-EU party that has hived off support from the Tories over the past decade, saw its vote collapse, losing every council seat it had defended and gaining only one, with most votes declared.
The main opposition Labour party also suffered a hemorrhaging of support, losing more than 100 seats in England and Wales and losing control of Glasgow council in Scotland for the first time in 40 years.
Strong victory in prospect
The results suggest May is on course for a strong victory in next month’s hastily called general election. In the UK, parties who gain momentum in local polls tend to improve on their position in subsequent national votes.
The landmark week began with a leaked account of a private dinner at Downing Street between May and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, designed to set the scene for Brexit negotiations, appeared in a German newspaper and potrayed the Prime Minister in an distinctly unfavorable light. After initially dismissing the report as “Brussels gossip”, May changed tack, warning Juncker she would be a “bloody difficult woman”.
In an inflammatory statement outside Number 10 on Wednesday, the Prime Minister accused EU officials of trying to interfere in the June 8 election by leaking details of the dinner. By portraying the dispute as emblematic of a battle over Brexit between a nation united under “my team” and an EU led by meddling “Brussels bureaucrats” – on the day before millions of UK voters went to the polls – almost certainly boosted the Conservative vote.
May’s strategy for the general election has been to pitch herself as a “strong and stable”, unifying national leader against what she calls the “coalition of chaos” led by Labour, which is divided under embattled leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Labour managed to hold on to some councils, in Cardiff and Doncaster, but Labour MP Stephen Kinnock, son of former party leader Neil Kinnock and tipped as a future centrist leadership candidate, said voters had left the party because it was perceived to be “hard left.”.
The UKIP leader, Paul Nuttall, directly linked his party’s defeat to the public dispute between the Prime Minister and European Commission president Jean Claude Juncker, saying it was “particularly fortuitously timed for the Conservatives.”
Hot rhetoric ahead
The Conservatives’ success in the local elections suggests the Prime Minister will only ramp up the hot rhetoric against Brussels in the runup to the June 8 vote.
David Davis, the Brexit minister who was also at the dinner on April 26, said of the leak: “Clearly what was happening was the commission was trying to bully the British people – and the British people will not be bullied, and the government will not allow them to be bullied.”
Rob Ford, professor of political science at Manchester University, said that while May’s public spat with Juncker will have helped, the Conservative victory was the result of a long-term hard Brexit strategy that May has been pursuing for nearly a year.
He said: “She has stolen UKIP’s pyjamas on Brexit and immigration by pursuing this assertive nationalist rhetoric. All of Ukip’s greatest hits have been played out of the Conservative stereo.”
Philip Cowley, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, said it was clear that May would stick with her strategy. “The single most striking feature of these elections is not UKIP vote falling – although that is clear – but the Conservative vote rising, largely as a result of hoovering up UKIP votes throughout the country.”
“To some extent that might have happened anyway, following Brexit and a sense that UKIP had achieved its main goal, but Theresa May’s behavior will have removed any doubts UKIP supporters might have had that she was going to take a tough line.”
Appeal for calm
Donald Tusk, the European Council President, appealed for calm on both sides of the Brexit debate on Thursday. He warned both Juncker’s circle, who are blamed for being behind the leak, and the UK government that the dispute puts Brexit negotiations at risk.
But Tusk’s plea appeared to have fallen on deaf ears on Friday when Juncker pointedly made a speech in French because “slowly but surely English is losing importance in Europe”.
A landslide for May will not necessarily mean plain sailing for Britain’s exit from the EU. Her patriotic rhetoric will only raise the expectations of what she can deliver, and with Britain holding few bargaining chips it is likely these will fall short.
And if, as the polls predict, Emmanuel Macron wins the French presidential election on Sunday, Britain is also likely to face a tough and newly mandated opponent in the Elysee after Macron warned on Thursday that Brexit would “not be walk in the park”.