British PM May avoids London wipeout in local elections

LONDON, (Reuters) – 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 May as she faces a possible revolt in parliament over her strategy for leaving the European Union.

With almost all results declared, 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 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.

May’s party kept control of Wandsworth council – a low-tax Conservative stronghold since the time of late prime minister Margaret Thatcher 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,” Travers said.

The makeup of 150 local government authorities, responsible for the day-to-day provision of public services, was at stake.

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.

May, appearing relaxed and smiling, visited Wandsworth on Friday morning. “Labour thought they could take control, this was one of their top targets and they threw everything at it, but they failed,” she said.

Ruling parties typically suffer at local elections and surveys had predicted losses in London for the Conservatives after eight years in power. May is negotiating an exit from the EU that 60 percent of the capital rejected at the 2016 Brexit referendum.

Results elsewhere in London’s 32 boroughs showed only a small swing to Labour, unlikely to give May a serious headache.

Corbyn has endured fierce criticism over the handling of anti-Semitism within his party. Critics also say he misjudged his response to military action in Syria and a row with Moscow over the poisoning of a former Russian spy in southern England.

Despite intensive campaigning, Labour saw the Conservatives win back control of the London borough of Barnet, which has the largest Jewish population of any single council area.

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