Last night’s local elections were a relief for the Conservatives, disappointing for Labour and tentatively mark the beginning of a comeback for the Liberal Democrats.
A month ago, with a divided Cabinet and a fragile Prime Minister navigating the near impossible terrain of Brexit, the Conservatives had feared a slaughter. Conversely, Labour had high hopes of historic gains in London.
Neither of these scenarios materialised.
Despite the propitious circumstances, Jeremy Corbyn couldn’t build on last year’s General Election success. His party failed to gain the target London councils of Barnet, Westminster and Wandsworth. But impressive gains in Trafford and Plymouth will give activists cause for hope: and some may remember that, when these elections were last contested in 2014, a very similar set of results for Labour gave Ed Miliband the false impression that he was heading for Number 10.
With no party making a decisive breakthrough, our period of electoral stalemate continues. It is not clear how a single party can win a substantial majority from here.
Without a majority, governing becomes nightmarish, as Theresa May knows only too well. Over the next few weeks she will face a nightmare so hellish, it will make the local election results feel like a sideshow: the Brexit deal.
Last week’s real drama
Last night, the Conservatives made most gains from the collapse of UKIP. Labour did less well in Brexit supporting areas. Voters made their calculations without having a clue about the final deal and the potentially seismic impact it will have on British politics.
In this context, the most significant event in UK politics this week was not the local elections. It was Wednesday’s meeting of the Cabinet’s Brexit Sub-Committee.
With the clock ticking, ministers could not even agree on a proposition in relation to the Customs Union to put to the rest of the EU next month.
May’s exasperated senior EU adviser, Olly Robbins, is heading for Brussels today to resume negotiations. I am told Robbins is increasingly doubtful about whether he can come back with any proposal that will unite the Cabinet and have any chance of getting the support of the EU. Parts of the EU had already turned down Robbins’ plan for a ‘customs partnership’ last week – only for it to then be met with the fuming disdain of David Davis on Wednesday. A tireless streetfighter, Davis had always been determined to kill off Robbins’ proposal, and duly succeeded in spite of the ‘customs partnership’ having May’s support.
May had good reason to back Robbins’ proposal. She will soon face a vote in the Commons on Ken Clarke and Anna Soubry’s amendment, backing membership of a Customs Union. The Whips’ Office has told May that as things stand she has not got the numbers to defeat the amendment. She regarded Robbins’ ‘customs partnership’ proposal partly as a protective shield that might kill off the revolt. Given the Parliamentary arithmetic, further postponements of the vote seem very likely.
The Brexit Broker
Although the local election results protect May from a fresh leadership challenge, they cannot change the dynamics of the Brexit debate. If she moves one way – towards support for a Customs Union – some of her Cabinet (and European Research Group ringleader Jacob Rees-Mogg) will erupt with anger. There might be resignations. If she seeks a ‘hard Brexit’, her pro-European wing will form an alliance with opposition parties to defeat her.
There is one Brexit path that might be still available to her. The key figure in navigating this path is Michael Gove.
To her own considerable surprise, Gove is May’s favourite cabinet minister. He is more flexible than some of the other Brexit ministers: he takes the view that to leave the EU next March is in itself a cause for celebration, and the precise form of the departure can be revisited. It is possible that he would accept some compromises on the Customs Union, and urge others to do so. But, as David Cameron found out during the referendum campaign, there are limits to Gove’s pragmatism.
A long, hot summer
May must have a proposition on the Customs Union and other matters for the EU Summit at the end of next month. With summer holidays looming, there will be limited time for a negotiation before a deal is presented to Parliament in October.
The months ahead will be by far the most fraught of May’s leadership. The local elections will at least provide her with some much needed comfort.