“The public have had enough,” the prime minister told voters in her televised address from the podium in No 10 last month. “You’re tired of the infighting. You’re tired of the political games. Tired of MPs talking about nothing else but Brexit.”
On Thursday, many of those voters will get their first chance to go to the polls, since Westminster entered deadlock and Brexit was delayed. Election-watchers expect them to use it to hammer Theresa May’s Conservatives.
More than 8,300 council seats are up for grabs, in 248 English local authorities, as well as six mayoralties, and 11 councils in Northern Ireland.
Many of the contests in England are in traditionally Tory areas. The last fight over them coincided with the 2015 general election, at which David Cameron’s party clinched an unexpected outright majority.
Local election results are notoriously hard to interpret. Turnout tends to be low – particularly when, as this year, there is no other vote taking place on the same day – and genuinely local issues, from hospital closures to bin collections, can swing results.
But this week’s vote will inevitably be seen as a measure of the public’s exasperation with the political wrangling that resulted in May accepting a second Brexit delay, potentially until 31 October.
The Conservatives’ deputy chair, Helen Whately, said on Sunday the council elections would be a difficult night for the party and that there was limited “bandwidth” in government to tackle issues aside from Brexit.
Pollsters put it more strongly. “It is going to be desperate for the Tories,” says Deborah Mattinson of the political consultancy Britain Thinks.
“Typically local elections are one part potholes and dog poo, and three or four parts a referendum on the government – but in this instance, the potholes and dog poo aren’t featuring at all.”
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Polling carried out by Britain Thinks recently suggested that 83% of the public feel let down by the entire political establishment – and experts believe Theresa May’s Conservatives are likely to bear the brunt, with supporters staying at home or switching sides.
The Tories have dropped below 30%, and behind Labour, in a string of polls taken since Brexit was delayed.
“The Tory vote share may well not drop as catastrophically as their recent plunge in the polls suggest, but in terms of councillors they may still have an absolutely appalling night,” says Prof Glen O’Hara of Oxford Brookes University.
“They have over 5,500 councillors standing, and although many of them across rural England will be returned easily (and not even be seriously opposed), multiple hundreds must be at risk of losing existing seats. If Brexit-inclined voters simply stay at home, which seems likely, that will really hurt the Tories everywhere.”
The only saving grace for the Conservatives may be that dissatisfied leave voters who do turn out to vote will have few alternative options in many areas. The Brexit party, which scored an extraordinary 23% in the latest Opinium poll for next month’s European elections, is not contesting local council seats.
Ukip, whose support and resources have collapsed in recent months as it has lurched to the right, has announced that it is standing candidates for at least 1,415 seats – but that is little more than one in six.
The Liberal Democrats hope to make significant gains. In 2015, the party was severely punished at the polls for governing in coalition with the Tories.
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Read moreFour years on, they have just 11 MPs at Westminster (a 12th, Stephen Lloyd, resigned the whip over Brexit), helping to restore some of the appearance of upstart outsiders that was wiped out by five years round the cabinet table.
The Lib Dems also have the advantage – unlike Labour – of near-unanimity over the central national issue, as was evident when Vince Cable launched their campaign in London on Friday, in front of the slogan “Stop Brexit”.
They performed better than expected in last year’s local elections, taking control of three councils, including in their happy hunting ground of south-west London, where they took Kingston and Richmond.
“The Lib Dems should do really well,” says O’Hara. “They lost 400+ the last time these seats were fought, and the bounceback will be noticeable.” He pointed to areas where the Lib Dems have previously done well, and now hold the parliamentary seat, such as Bath and North East Somerset, where there is an all-out election for the council.
Smaller parties, including the Greens, could also fare well, as voters signal their irritation at mainstream politicians’ squabbling.
Meanwhile, Labour is keen to focus on grassroots issues that play into its wider narrative of public services crumbling after almost a decade of spending cuts – with much of the burden falling on local government.
Jeremy Corbyn has had a policy blitz in recent days, announcing plans to boost neglected bus services, change the “permitted development” rules that allow developers to turn offices into tiny flats, and fund at-home social care more generously.
The stream of announcements was reminiscent of that seen in spring 2017, when many of the ideas it published during the local election campaign went on to feature in the general election manifesto a couple of months later.
O’Hara suggests Labour has the capacity to take seats from the Tories in some areas. “The Conservatives will face a multi-pronged attack from every angle, with Labour gaining where they are strong, and the Lib Dems gaining where they are.”
Both sides of the bitter Brexit divide are likely to read the results as an endorsement of their own view about what should happen next.
But Mattinson says many voters just want politicians to get on with tackling the kinds of day-to-day challenges that are usually the bread and butter of local election campaigns.
“One of the sources of people’s fury is that they feel Brexit has sucked the energy out of the political debate, and the things that matter to them – and that’s not Brexit, by and large.”