British PM Theresa May defies expectations in local elections

Prime Minister Theresa May speaks to party supporters at Sedgley Conservative Club in Dudley, United Kingdom, on May 4, 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (AFP) - British Prime Minister Theresa May's Conservative Party fared better than expected in local elections in England as the final results were announced early Saturday (May 5), in her first test at the polls since losing her parliamentary majority last year.

The centre-right party held on to key London councils despite a big push by Labour, the main opposition, which failed to live up to its own hype.

The ruling party also scored highly in areas that voted in favour of Brexit in the 2016 referendum, while losing some ground in more pro-EU heartlands.

The UK Independence Party (UKIP), which has seen its support collapse since cheerleading the 2016 vote for Brexit, was all but wiped out while the pro-European Liberal Democrats made the biggest gains.

Labour's leftist leader Jeremy Corbyn had sought to build on momentum from last year's June general election, when an unexpected surge for his party deprived May of her majority.

But Labour admitted "mixed" results despite a tough week for May, who has been plagued by cabinet divisions over Brexit as well as a row over immigration that toppled one of her top ministers.

"We've done better than expected," Conservative Party chairman Brandon Lewis told Sky News television.

"We have seen Labour - who thought they would be sweeping the board in London... not gaining a single council in London." Matt Singh of Number Cruncher Politics noted: "Opposition parties are supposed to do well in mid-term contests, and these aren't the results of one that's about to storm the next general election." The final count over 150 councils showed Labour gain 62 seats and the Conservatives lose 32, with the Lib Dems up 75 seats and UKIP down 132. The Green Party were up eight council seats.

The votes equated to a 35 percent national vote share for both Labour and the Conservatives, though such projections are an inexact science.

A BBC projection suggested that such results at a general election would mean a hung parliament, with Labour on 283 seats compared with the Conservatives' 280, both well short of the 326 needed for a majority.

The Conservatives appeared to have benefited from the collapse of UKIP, which was instrumental in the Brexit vote but has since lost its way.

On a victory tour in London, May said Labour "threw everything at it, but they failed", while adding: "We won't take anything for granted." Labour's goal to win Conservative strongholds in London like Wandsworth or Westminster always seemed a stretch, though it did gain seats in those councils.

Its failure to take Barnet, a suburb with a large Jewish population that was Labour's top target in the capital, is likely to be more heavily scrutinised in the context of an ongoing row over anti-Semitism in the opposition party.

"I think there are lots of voters, Jewish people in London, who don't feel comfortable voting Labour," London's Labour mayor Sadiq Khan told the BBC.

Corbyn said he had secured a "solid set of results".

"Labour has won even more council seats than at our high watermark of 2014 and we are on course to secure our best results in London since 1971," he said.

Two results for Labour stood out: Labour lawmaker Dan Jarvis won a mayoral election in Sheffield in northern England, while the party retained control of Birmingham council in Britain's second-biggest conurbation.

The Conservatives held Kensington and Chelsea, where the council had faced severe criticism over last year's devastating Grenfell Tower fire that killed 71 people, with a slightly reduced majority.

However, they lost the southwestern city of Plymouth to Labour and lost control of Trafford, the Tories' flagship council in northern England.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson pointed to the party's success in Brexit-voting areas, remarking that Corbyn's promise to keep Britain in the EU customs union "means he is not trusted to deliver Brexit".

The Conservatives lost the strongly anti-Brexit London borough of Richmond upon Thames to the Liberal Democrats, who had courted EU citizens' votes.

The Lib Dems also won neighbouring Kingston upon Thames from the Conservatives.

Lib Dem leader Vince Cable, whose centrist party has struggled in recent years after losing support for going into government with the Conservatives, said: "We are very much on the way back."

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