In May of last year, we had a set of local elections, as indeed we do every May. People don’t talk about the results of them much anymore for several reasons. One, once they come and go, people tend to forget all about the national results of local elections – even though, immediately afterwards, they read into them in ways that can only be described as absurd. But May 2017 is worth revisiting, just for a moment. The Tories gained 563 seats, while Labour lost 382. Everyone took this as a sure sign that the Tories were going to roll over Labour at the general election a month later – I hold my hand up as being one of those people. But they turned out not to matter that much – to a GE only a few weeks, never mind a few years later. Please bear this in mind when in early May, you will hear all sorts of reasons why the local elections do or do not definitely signify that Jeremy Corbyn will or will not ever be prime minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
This is even more pertinent than ever given the backdrop of Brexit. In terms of whether there will be a Labour or a Tory prime minister in Number 10 after the next general election, it boils down to Brexit and Brexit alone – even though everyone will continue to deny it, even after the result. I think this is a pretty simple equation, one that Theresa May, for all her faults, understands: if we leave the EU in March 2019 and no one notices any difference in the six months afterwards, I figure the Tories will definitely win the next general election. This is why the hard Brexiteers in the Conservative Party are acting perversely: if they get what they want, they will irreparably damage their own party’s electoral hopes and increase the chances dramatically of a Corbyn-led government. If Brexit happens in March 2019 and it is in anyway a bumpy ride, then that opens up a lot of different possibilities. The Tories could still win, but so could Corbyn, or whatever is left of the smouldering heap of the centre-left in this country anyhow at that stage.
The same equation, to some extent, applies to the Liberal Democrats: if we get a soft Brexit that kind of comes and goes and nothing changes, I think they are existentially doomed. Again, it would be cruelly ironic for them were this the case, given they have campaigned so hard for a soft Brexit, but that’s politics for you. If we get a hard Brexit, a Lib Dem recovery is a long way from assured but is at least a possibility. It would be in the Lib Dems’ hands at that point, in other words.
So, to summarise, ignore the May local elections as a harbinger of elections to come. Even more than usual, they won’t tell you anything about who will be the next prime minister.