Saturday 17 August 2019

Tories suffer worst loss since '95

Conservatives down 1,200 council seats amid anger over Brexit

Heckled: British Prime Minister Theresa May at the Welsh Conservative party conference at Llangollen yesterday. Photo: PA
Heckled: British Prime Minister Theresa May at the Welsh Conservative party conference at Llangollen yesterday. Photo: PA

Gordon Rayner and Anna Mikhailova

The Conservatives have suffered their worst local election result since Tony Blair's humiliation of John Major a quarter of a century ago after they lost almost 1,200 council seats.

British Prime Minister Theresa May faced a chorus of demands to quit as Tory leader from her own MPs and members after she was personally blamed for a voter backlash over Brexit.

On a night described as "brutal" by the Tory MP Vicky Ford, who appeared close to tears during a live television interview, thousands of voters spoilt their ballot papers to register personal protests while others expressed their dismay with the mainstream parties by backing independents.

Labour, which had expected to profit from the Tories' failure to deliver Brexit, ended up losing dozens of seats as Jeremy Corbyn became the least successful opposition leader of the past 40 years. Mrs May has been warned by her own ministers she must not now bow to Labour demands for a customs union with the EU ahead of fresh Brexit talks with Mr Corbyn, or she will face further electoral disaster.

In separate interviews, Michael Gove and Jeremy Hunt said the UK had to be in control of its own trade policy after it leaves the EU, rather than letting Brussels remain in charge.

Home Secretary Sajid Javid said the Tories faced an "existential threat" from Mr Corbyn, while Tory Brexiteer Bernard Jenkin said the party was "toast" unless it delivered Brexit.

As she addressed the Welsh Conservative Conference, Mrs May was heckled by a party member who shouted: "Why don't you resign? We don't want you!"

The Tory MP Michael Fabricant said "the cancer in the Conservative Party must now be excised" as he launched a vicious attack on Mrs May's leadership, saying "a new leader and a clean break from the EU" were needed.

With fewer than 10 councils still to declare last night, the Tories had lost control of more than 40 councils in a result that far outstripped their worst fears of an 800-seat reversal.

It was the party's poorest showing since 1995 when they lost more than 2,000 seats to a rejuvenated Labour Party that swept them from power in Westminster two years later and kept them out for 13 years.

The Tories were not alone in being punished for their Brexit failings, as Labour - which had predicted widespread gains - ended up with almost 70 fewer seats. Barry Gardiner, the shadow international trade secretary, said the party had been "speaking with two voices" on Brexit and had been punished as a result.

The big winners were the Liberal Democrats, who gained more than 600 seats, while the Greens won more than 160 extra seats on the back of recent climate change protests, and independents gained more than 200 seats.

If the results were replicated in a general election, Mr Corbyn would be prime minister if he could form a Labour-SNP-Lib Dem coalition, with neither of the two main parties coming close to winning a majority. Mr Corbyn hinted that a cross-party Brexit deal was in the offing as he said there was now a "huge impetus" on every MP to "get a deal done".

Downing Street has said it wants its Brexit talks with Labour to be wrapped up by the middle of next week, leading to speculation that Mrs May is about to cave in to Mr Corbyn's insistence on a customs union.

Mr Gove, the environment secretary, said a customs union was not "the best solution for Britain" because it was "critical" the UK maintained an independent trade policy.

Mr Hunt, the foreign secretary, said, "I am not a supporter of the customs union" and also said the UK had to be able to "negotiate our own trade deals".

At the Scottish Conservative Conference, Mr Javid said: "We are seen as a divided team. A divided party cannot unite a divided nation. The only winner from that is Corbyn."

© Daily Telegraph London

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