Local polls boost May five weeks before UK general election

Reuters News
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Posted: May 05, 2017 9:23 AM

By Elizabeth Piper

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's Conservative Party made strong gains in local elections on Friday, suggesting Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit strategy is winning over voters who should hand her an easy victory in a parliamentary poll on June 8.

Early results from the local elections, which voters often use to punish the ruling party, showed May's Conservatives had instead gained more than 200 council seats and won a mayoral election in the West of England.

The main opposition Labour Party lost control of councils in Wales, but the biggest losses were suffered by the anti-EU UK Independence Party, which after two decades of campaigning to leave the European Union has struggled to find a new raison d'etre since Britons voted for Brexit last June.

By calling an early national election for next month, May has made the local votes a gauge of her leadership, and many Conservative candidates have campaigned in recent days using her campaign mantra of "strong and stable leadership".

But turnout was low and the Conservatives were careful not to overplay their expected victory next month, which could reshape the British political landscape for years to come.

"(They are) encouraging results but I am cautious about predicating the general election on them," Defence Minister Michael Fallon told BBC radio.

Labour also played down its losses. Finance spokesman John McDonnell described the results as tough, but "it hasn't been the wipe-out that some people predicted or the polls predicted".

The early results suggested that the Conservatives had grabbed votes from both Labour and UKIP, signaling that May's bid to position her party in the political center ground and take a strong stance on Brexit may be paying dividends.

BREXIT TENSIONS

Even in Scotland, which since the late 1990s has largely shunned the governing party, early results showed the Conservatives gaining strongly to the detriment of both Labour and, to a lesser extent, the Scottish National Party, which still looked likely to win the lion's share of votes overall.

That would mirror a trend predicted in polls for next month's election showing the Conservatives becoming the party of choice for those who reject Scottish independence.

Opinion polls give May a runaway lead in the national election next month of around 20 percentage points, which could hand her more than 100 more seats in parliament and bolster her hand in divorce negotiations with the EU.

May has accused EU officials of seeking to affect the outcome of the election by issuing threats over Brexit, and warned voters that the other 27 member states were lining up against Britain to win a deal that "works for them".

Brexit minister David Davis also took a hardline stance against what the government is portraying as attempts by the European Commission, the EU's executive, to intimidate Britain before the start of the Brexit talks.

"The British people will not be bullied, and the government will not allow them to be bullied," Davis told the BBC late on Thursday.

(Reporting by Elizabeth Piper and Elisabeth O'Leary in Edinburgh; editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Mark Trevelyan)