LONDON • Prime Minister Theresa May's Conservative Party avoided a wipeout in London local elections and eked out gains in Brexit-supporting regions elsewhere, results yesterday showed, denting the opposition Labour Party's hopes of a big win.
The elections are a gauge of public support for Mrs May as she faces a possible revolt in Parliament over her strategy for leaving the European Union.
With two-thirds of results declared, Mrs May had avoided the widespread losses that would have weakened her authority over Conservative lawmakers ahead of tests of her plans to take Britain out of the EU Customs Union as it quits the bloc.
"These results are as good as any government party after eight years in power could expect," said Dr Tony Travers, a professor at the London School of Economics Department of Government. "They'll be a relief for May and the Conservative Party as a whole because they're suggestive that, despite the fact the Conservatives are in an on-and-off civil war over Brexit, the Labour Party's problems are possibly worse."
Against a backdrop of heightened expectations for Labour, Thursday's ballot also hinted at the limitations of its recent resurgence under veteran socialist Jeremy Corbyn.
Mrs May's party kept control of Wandsworth council - a low-tax Conservative stronghold that had been one of Labour's main targets.
"Labour will have to do far, far better than this in local elections in future to suggest they are convincing the electorate more generally," Dr Travers said.
The makeup of 150 local government authorities, responsible for the day-to-day provision of public services, was at stake.
ABOUT THE ELECTIONS
• Councils are the local government authorities responsible for providing public services that affect residents' day-to-day lives. They are made up of varying numbers of seats, and run by the party with an overall majority of those seats.
• More than 4,000 council seats are being contested, determining the makeup of 150 councils. More than 40 per cent of the seats are in London.
• All 32 London boroughs are electing their whole councils. Some councils outside London are electing only one-third of their councillors.
• Unlike national elections that decide seats in Parliament, or the 2016 European Union referendum, Thursday's elections are open to EU nationals registered and residing in electing boroughs.
RESULTS OF 5 KEY COUNCILS
PETERBOROUGH RESULT: CONSERVATIVE GAIN The Conservatives won the single extra seat they needed to take overall control of this council which represents an eastern area where 61 per cent voted to leave the EU.
TRAFFORD RESULT: CONSERVATIVE LOSS
A council in the northern city of Manchester which had been the Conservatives' highly prized foothold in a region dominated by the opposition Labour Party.
WANDSWORTH RESULT: CONSERVATIVE HOLD
A hotly contested Conservative borough in south-west London with a tradition of low taxes dating back to former premier Margaret Thatcher.
WESTMINSTER RESULT: CONSERVATIVE HOLD The Conservatives lost three seats on this symbolic council at the heart of London's political district but kept overall control by a wide margin.
BARNET RESULT: CONSERVATIVE GAIN The Conservatives regained overall control of Barnet council.
The Conservatives also held on to Westminster, London's political district, indicating that their losses in the capital would come in at the lower end of the predicted range.
Mrs May, appearing relaxed and smiling, visited Wandsworth yesterday. "Labour thought they could take control, this was one of their top targets and they threw everything at it, but they failed," she said.
Results elsewhere in London's 32 boroughs showed only a small swing to Labour, unlikely to give Mrs May a serious headache.
Outside London, the Conservatives regained control of councils in the pro-Brexit regions of Peterborough and Basildon, largely at the expense of the anti-EU UK Independence Party. UKIP has suffered leadership issues and struggled for new purpose since achieving its main aim at the 2016 referendum.
The overall tally, due at 3am today Singapore time, will offer the most complete snapshot of public opinion since an election last year in which the Conservatives suffered unexpected losses, leaving Mrs May weakened and her party arguing openly about Brexit.
Mrs May will remain under pressure from rival Conservative factions: those who want to keep close ties with the EU by staying in the Customs union, and others who say anything short of a clean break is a betrayal of the Brexit referendum result.