Britain’s election map redrawn as Theresa May's Tories triumph in Brexit heartland

British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservatives made sweeping gains Friday in local elections, handing her a big boost going into next month’s Brexit-dominated parliamentary vote

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 May, 2017, 12:57pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 May, 2017, 9:48pm

Glasgow, the Tees Valley, Northumberland - these are places that haven’t voted Conservative in decades, if ever.

If the scale of Theresa May’s victory in Britain’s local elections was startling, so too was its geography. In one fell swoop the prime minister has claimed entire swathes of Labour’s traditional vote in working class areas of the Midlands and the North as her own in what is a reconfiguration of the electorate along the faultlines of Brexit.

Final results showed the ruling centre-right party gaining ground across the country, with the main opposition Labour party taking a pounding and Brexit cheerleaders UKIP all but wiped out.

“May’s consolidation of the Brexit vote is a quite astonishing success,” said Rob Ford, professor of politics at the University of Manchester.

“They’re gaining voters who are excited about Brexit, and not losing voters who aren’t.”

Matt Singh of the NumberCruncherPolitics site saw it as a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” for the Tories to redraw the political map.

The signs point to May’s Conservatives winning national elections by a landslide on June 8. The huge majority she covets will free her from worrying about how to sell the Brexit deal she gets to Parliament, as well as allowing her to implement whatever domestic policies she chooses.

Labour lost 320 to end up with 1,151 - prompting leader Jeremy Corbyn to acknowledge that winning next month’s general election would be a “challenge on a historic scale”.

“Traditional Labour voters like May’s message on Brexit - that’s the pull - but they also don’t like Jeremy Corbyn - that’s the push,” said Steven Fielding, professor of politics at Nottingham University.

Dislike for Brussels, rather than Corbyn, might be more of an incentive to get to the ballot box. May’s campaign has identified a number of pro-remain seats that could be lost to protest votes. These are far outnumbered by the number of previously unwinnable Labour seats that the Conservatives are targeting as realistic prospects, according to a strategist working on her campaign who declined to be named. 

May’s team may be prepared to lose a few seats in London and south-east England to cement her move towards a national, more populist party in order to try to win big in what was once Labour’s heartland, the strategist said. If she succeeds, it will mark a sea-change unseen since the before the second world war when the UK was still an imperial power.

The 1931 election is generally agreed to be Labour’s worst ever result - “the gold standard in Labour defeats,” according to  Nottingham University’s Fielding.

“Never mind the 1980s, when Labour was trounced by Margaret Thatcher: if things don’t change, then we might be looking at the worst general election result for the party since the early 1930s,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary, university of London.

May has positioned herself as the national leader - “strong and stable” she repeats time and time again - needed to deal with a crisis as daunting as Brexit. She leapt on an article in a German newspaper as evidence that the EU was conspiring to undermine the election and bully the British people.

While the strategy appears to have paid off, the poisoned atmosphere might mean talks get off on wrong foot.

“These negotiations are difficult enough as they are,” EU President Donald Tusk said Thursday.

“If we start arguing before they even begin, they will become impossible.”

The prime minister’s overtly patriotic appeal - unusual for a mainstream British politician - increased the contrast with Corbyn, who is uncomfortable with national symbols, and refused to sing the national anthem at a church service shortly after he became leader.

“We ended up talking about defence and immigration and Brexit,” said Sion Simon, narrowly defeated in a central England mayoral race.

“On those issues, Labour voters in Labour areas were saying to us: ‘We don’t feel confident that you’re strong enough in our traditional values.”

Labour wasn’t alone in taking a beating. The UK Independence Party, founded on a pledge to withdraw the country from the EU, all but collapsed, as its voters moved en masse to the Conservatives.

The Liberal Democrats, who had hoped to catch a wave of anti-Brexit anger, lost seats, as did the Scottish National Party, looking for leverage to call a second referendum on independence.

One seat in Northumberland, northeast England, had to be decided by drawing straws, following a tie.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse