What’s at stake in the local elections?

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Let’s be honest. Even at the best of times, local elections are hardly the most exciting of events. That’s not fair, because what happens in your town hall has a huge bearing on your day-to-day life. But the fact is this week’s local elections will largely be decided by national and international politics.

These local elections are in many ways, just a dress rehearsal for the European vote later in May. They’ll be disastrous for the Conservatives, with no real comfort for the party — only the certainty of an even worse defeat three weeks later.

The seats up for grabs this week were last fought in 2015, on the same day as the General Election that gave the Tories an unexpected majority. 

The turnout was far, far higher than it will be this week, and Tories were hugely motivated to vote, definitely not the case today. 

If you’re a Tory activist, either furious at the party’s bungled handling of Brexit, or simply embarrassed by it, how do you drag yourself from one doorstep to another, keeping a straight face as you urge people to support a party collapsing before your eyes? 

The Conservatives have the most to loose from the local elections...

The Conservatives have the most to loose from the local elections...

It’s already clear the Conservatives will lose hundreds of council seats, and control of a few councils too. The Liberal Democrats could be the main beneficiaries, not because of a sudden surge in popularity, but simply because many traditional Tory voters won’t be able to stomach backing the party this time.

It’s unfair for anger at national leaders to be taken out on often hardworking local politicians, but the fact is voters have no other route to express their frustration.

It’s only the warm-up act

Then, three weeks later, we’ll go through it all again. But the European elections will be an even bigger kicking for the Conservative Party.

For many voters, this is a free hit. We were never meant to take part in this election, and in all likelihood the MEPs sent to Brussels won’t be there for very long. It feels like a consequence-free opportunity to take a swing at established, mainstream politics.

However bad the local elections are, the European vote will be worse. The Brexit Party is sitting out this week, as is Change UK. UKIP is contesting fewer than one-in-five of the seats up for grabs.

But come May 23rd all will be there, with a full slate of candidates, offering a home for disgruntled voters, whatever direction their anger takes.

The Conservatives could record their worst performance in a UK-wide poll in nearly 200 years.

But let’s not forget Labour

The opposition’s “creative ambiguity” on Brexit surely can’t last much longer. It seems Jeremy Corbyn, and those around him, want to see Brexit delivered without ever actually being blamed for it. Others, centred on Tom Watson, want to reverse the whole process through a second referendum.

For months, the leadership has pretended to theoretically support such a vote, while doing nothing that would actually bring it any closer.

This row is coming to a head, and not just inside the party.

It’s true that many of Labour’s target seats in any General Election are in leave-voting areas, and many of its most vulnerable seats backed Brexit too.

But Labour also depends on truckloads of votes in remain-backing areas, not least in London. The activists who cheered Mr Corbyn into office can’t really understand why he’s not as enthusiastic for the EU as they are. 

If Labour doesn’t explicitly support a second referendum, many of its natural supporters could give their votes to the Lib Dems, Greens or Change UK. If the party does back a vote, it could lose ground in the very areas it needs if it’s to get into government.

Neither option is easy. But politics is supposed to be about making decisions, something Labour’s been shirking for a very long time when it comes to Brexit.

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The Brexit deal is done. The Brexit deal is dead.

There have been so many “make or break” moments in the last two years, it’s easy to dismiss the agreement on a draft Brexit deal as just another meaningless milestone. But it really isn’t.

It could be the breaking point for many — inside and outside the Cabinet — who have serious doubts about Theresa May’s strategy. 

It could force her from office, trigger a General Election, or even a second referendum. Or, it could limp through Parliament, leaving long-lasting enmity in its wake. 

Northern Ireland remains the biggest stumbling block. The EU has long insisted the only way to avoid a hard border with the Irish Republic is for Northern Ireland (alone) to follow EU rules, something the Prime Minister has repeatedly ruled out. 

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Her solution is for the whole of the UK to agree to effectively stay in the customs union once the transition period ends.  But study the small print, and it may start to look like Northern Ireland’s subjugation to EU rules will be greater than the rest of the UK.

This doesn’t matter, says Theresa May, because it’s only a last resort — we won’t need the backstop, because we’ll agree a wider deal before it’s due to come into force in 2021. 

She appears, however, to be the only person who thinks that’s possible. 

So, in fact, she may be signing the UK up to following EU rules, over which the UK will have absolutely no say, for an undefined period. 

An “independent element” in a new committee would decide if the UK could stop following those rules - and even then without another solution, Northern Ireland could be left behind. 

This is the “vassal state” that angers so many Brexiteers.

You can’t keep an undeliverable promise

The likes of Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg are outraged by the anti-democratic nature of an outside institution (the EU) imposing rules on a sovereign state (Britain) over which that state has no control.  

Go back to the first half of 2016, and they would have dismissed such concerns as “Project Fear.” It turns out there was much to fear. 

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Theresa May is clearly a weak leader, and a poor prime minister. But who else could have delivered a better outcome? The referendum was won on a series of undeliverable, some would say false, promises. 

Voters were told they could leave behind all the things they didn’t like about the EU (free movement, Brussels diktat), and keep all the things they did like (free trade, cheap phone calls on holiday).  

This was never true. The EU was never going to allow a member state to leave, and enjoy all the benefits of membership. It would have to demonstrate the price of leaving, the economic and social consequences, to prevent a stampede for the exit. 

Theresa May has spent the last two years trying to deliver on a series of undeliverable promises. She’s failed, as anyone else would. 

It’s all academic really

For all the arguments about backstops and customs arrangements, the reality is that — right now — there’s almost no chance this Brexit deal will be approved by Parliament.

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Brexiteer Tories won’t support it because it hands too much power to the EU, Remainer Tories won’t back it because they think it will harm the economy. The DUP won’t back it because they’re convinced they’re being sacrificed for the rest of the UK. Labour will oppose it to try to trigger an election.

Assuming the Prime Minister gets through her Cabinet meeting with enough ministers left to govern, she then has to persuade the remaining 27 EU member states to back the deal as well. And then she has to go to Parliament, where she will probably lose the “meaningful vote” we’ve heard so much about.

And then? No-one knows. But with some in Westminster predicting that vote could be as late as December 21st, it could be a Blue Christmas for Theresa May... 

The next Party Games podcast will have more on the Brexit deal, and what happens next. Click here to subscribe, and listen to past episodes...