LONDON • Britain's governing Conservative Party has made strong gains in local elections, suggesting that Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit strategy is winning over voters, who should hand her an easy victory in a parliamentary election on June 8.
As at 1.15pm in London (8.15pm Singapore time), Mrs May's Tories had won 1,011 council seats in England, Scotland and Wales - a net gain of 271 - and controlled 12 councils, according to a BBC tally.
The main opposition Labour Party had won 609 seats, a net loss of 202, and controlled five councils, all in Wales.
But the biggest losses were suffered by the anti-EU UK Independence Party (Ukip), which has struggled to find a new footing since the vote to leave the European Union last June.
The results are still partial, with only about 2,500 of the 4,851 seats declared. "It's early days, but it could be the best set of local election results for the Tories in 25 years or so," professor of politics John Curtice of Strathclyde University told BBC Radio 5.
By calling an early national election, Mrs May has made the local votes a gauge of her leadership, and many of her Conservative candidates have campaigned in recent days using her campaign mantra of "strong and stable leadership".
But turnout was low and votes were not held in areas, including London, which voted to remain in the EU and traditionally leans towards Labour. The Conservatives were careful not to overplay their expected victory next month, which could reshape the British political landscape for years to come.
Defence Minister Michael Fallon said: "(These are) encouraging results but I am cautious about predicating the general election on them. We have still got to get out there and campaign for every vote."
The opposition Labour Party also played down its losses, with Labour finance spokesman John McDonnell saying that it was not "the wipe-out that some people predicted or the polls predicted".
The winners will have responsibility for local schools, trash collection and planning decisions. As well as in the west of England, there were also elections for five other new regional mayors, including in the key swing region of the West Midlands, centred on Birmingham.
A bizarre scene was played out in north-east England's Northumberland County Council, after the final seat was decided by drawing straws.
With the Conservatives and the opposition tied on 33 seats each, the battle came down to the 67th and final seat. But after two recounts, Liberal Democrat candidate Lesley Rickerby and her Conservative opponent Daniel Carr could not be separated, having exactly the same number of votes.
The returning officer in charge of the count decided to settle the matter by drawing straws - with Ms Rickerby emerging the victor.
"I certainly don't want to do that again in a hurry; it really was the last straw," said Ms Rickerby.
The early results suggested that Mrs May's Conservatives had taken votes from both Labour and Ukip, signalling that her bid to position her party in the political centre ground and take a strong stance on Brexit may be paying dividends.
Opinion polls give Mrs May a runaway lead in the national election on June 8 of around 20 percentage points, which could hand her more than 100 more seats in Parliament and bolster her hand in divorce negotiations with the EU.