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Main UK parties suffer Brexit battering in local elections

Britain’s bitterly-divided MPs have been unable to agree on a divorce deal with the EU, with the two main parties in talks on breaking the impasse that has produced little fruit so far.

FILE: Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May. Picture: AFP.

LONDON - Britain’s two main parties suffered a drubbing on Friday in English local elections, with Prime Minister Theresa May’s governing Conservatives bearing the brunt of voter frustration over the prolonged Brexit deadlock.

May’s Conservatives lost control of several local authorities and well over a thousand seats, performing far worse than even the gloomiest predictions.

But the main opposition Labour Party also lost ground, with voters instead turning to smaller parties and independents in Thursday’s polls.

“There was a simple message from yesterday’s elections to both us and the Labour Party: just get on and deliver Brexit,” May said.

Britain’s bitterly-divided MPs have been unable to agree on a divorce deal with the EU, with the two main parties in talks on breaking the impasse that has produced little fruit so far.

“This is a difficult time for our party and these election results are a symptom of that,” May told the Welsh Conservative Conference, having faced down a heckler calling for her to quit.

The results raise the pressure on May and Labour counterpart Jeremy Corbyn to strike a deal and avoid having to hold European Parliament elections on 23 May, where they face being wiped out by Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, which did not compete in Thursday’s vote.

Corbyn said that he was “very sorry” for the party’s losses, adding there was now “a huge impetus” for the talks to succeed.

May later said that her government and Labour were locked in “constructive talks”.

After voting in June 2016 to leave the European Union, Britain was meant to depart on March 29 this year. However, its exit date has been postponed until 31 October due to the wrangling.

‘PLAGUE ON BOTH HOUSES’

With a handful of results still to be declared, the Tories had lost over 1,200 seats, while Labour had lost 81.

Labour was expected to pick up seats as voters typically give the sitting government kicking in such elections.

It will also be concerned about losing seats in its traditional heartlands, which voted heavily to leave the EU and which it would need to win in order to beat the Tories in a general election.

The party’s Brexit position is described by some commentators as constructive ambiguity.

It is also losing support over the issue of anti-Semitism, which flared again this week when it emerged leader Corbyn had written the foreword to a book containing what the party called “offensive references”.

If results were replicated nationwide, pollster John Curtice calculated that both the Conservatives and Labour would each get only 28% of the total vote, saying the days of two-party domination “may be over”.

The centrist Liberal Democrats and left-wing Greens - both anti-Brexit - were the big winners, along with independent candidates.

Voters went to the polls in mainly rural and suburban areas of England, with more than 8,000 seats up for grabs.

All 11 local authorities in Northern Ireland were also contested among the province’s own parties.

“The key message from the voters to the Conservatives and Labour is ‘a plague on both of your houses’,” Curtice told the BBC.

They lost votes most heavily in the wards where they were strongest, he noted.

‘NO CONFIDENCE’

The council elections decide who sets local tax rates and runs community services but are often swayed by the national picture.

The Greens appear to have been boosted by the recent climate protests in London, which brought environmental issues to the front-pages.

Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable said voters “no longer have confidence in the Conservatives, but they are also refusing to reward Labour while the party prevaricates on the big issue of the day.”

The problems for the two main parties could worsen at the European elections when they will also face two newly-formed forces: the Brexit Party - which leads in the opinion polls - and pro-EU centrists Change UK.

Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin told BBC radio that if the centre-right party “doesn’t mend its ways pretty quickly, the Conservative Party is going to be toast”.

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