World News

May Fends Off Labour Party Challenge in Local Elections

Posted May 4, 2018 1:35 p.m. EDT

LONDON — Despite mounting troubles over Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union and a recent Cabinet resignation, Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative Party emerged relatively unscathed from local elections, according to results released Friday that showed that its opponents had failed to make the breakthrough many expected.

May has been struggling to deal with one crisis after another, many of them related to the negotiations over the withdrawal, but mixed results from across the country meant the opposition Labour Party failed to achieve the big, and symbolic, gains it was hoping for.

Labour was victorious in some key areas, but it fell short in its efforts to take control of two Conservative strongholds in London — Westminster and Wandsworth — that had been thought to be vulnerable, as well as the capital’s northern borough of Barnet, a much easier target.

On Friday, May visited Wandsworth, where she exulted in the Conservatives’ victory there. “They threw everything at it, but they failed,” she said.

Labour outperformed expectations in last year’s general election under its left-wing leader, Jeremy Corbyn, but the results from the elections Thursday were unspectacular, and one lawmaker, Chuka Umunna, called for an inquiry into the party’s failure to exploit the government’s recent problems.

Labour’s leader rejected claims that the moment of “peak Corbyn” had passed, however. “No, no, there is much more to come and it’s going to get even better,” Corbyn told Sky News.

The results will be a relief for May, whose leadership has been in question since she called an unnecessary general election last June in which she lost her parliamentary majority. That has forced her to rely on an uneasy alliance with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party to get legislation through Parliament.

May has survived the various threats to her leadership, and her position seemed to have stabilized thanks to her handling of the aftermath of the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei V. Skripal and his daughter, Yulia.

But, during the past week, she was hit with two new problems: the resignation of the home secretary, Amber Rudd, after a crisis over handling of immigration policy, and an internal impasse in a Cabinet committee over the government’s plans for EU withdrawal, commonly known as Brexit.

Although Labour took the southern English city of Plymouth, the Conservatives picked up seats by exploiting a collapse in support for the right-wing, anti-immigration U.K. Independence Party, which had been influential in the campaign to quit the European Union.

In an interview with the BBC, its general secretary, Paul Oakley, said that his party was dormant, not finished — comparing it to the Black Death, the devastating epidemic of bubonic plague that struck in the mid-1300s.

Labour had allowed expectations for election gains to grow high, particularly in London, where some senior figures talked up prospects of a victory in Wandsworth. A dispute over the handling of anti-Semitism in the party may have also cost support for Labour and Corbyn, particularly in Barnet, where there is a significant Jewish population.

Nevertheless, the voting took place at a difficult time for a divided government facing many problems. In recent weeks, May’s predicament has been complicated by the House of Lords, the unelected chamber of Parliament, which has inflicted 10 defeats on her Brexit legislation, adding amendments that she will try to overturn in the House of Commons, the main chamber.

May’s problems over a withdrawal are coming to a head over her promise to leave Europe’s customs union, which guarantees tariff-free trade with Continental Europe.

This issue has come to symbolize a deep division: Pro-Europeans want to stick close to the bloc, Britain’s biggest trade partner, in order to protect the economy, while hard-line Brexit supporters want to break free and to negotiate other trade deals with non-European nations.

Some supporters of Brexit have hinted they would challenge May’s leadership if she tried to soften the economic consequences of a withdrawal by sticking close to the bloc’s economic rules and forming a close customs arrangement. There is speculation that some Brexit Cabinet cheerleaders — Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and the international trade secretary, Liam Fox — might quit.

But if she pleases the hard-line Brexit faction, May will struggle to get approval for her plan from Parliament.

“It is as remarkable as it is depressing that, with less than a year to go until Britain formally leaves, the Brexit inner Cabinet is still debating what kind of customs arrangements the U.K. should be seeking,” wrote James Forsyth, political editor of the right-wing, Brexit-supporting magazine The Spectator.

Indirectly, at least, Brexit appeared to have played a role in shaping the local election results. May’s party generally polled well in parts of England that voted to leave the European Union, while Labour performed well in areas that wanted to remain, as did the smaller, more pro-European, Liberal Democrats, who made gains.