It was local election day in the UK yesterday, and that meant the inevitable pictures of dogs at polling stations, dodgy spelling on election leaflets and local controversies over bin collection day. Despite this, Thursday’s English council elections will have probably taken on a significance all of their own for pundits and politicians looking to gauge the public mood on Britain’s Brexit strategy.
For the UK government, and by extension its approach to Brexit, getting through yesterday’s local elections having maintained control of a large number of councils will have come as a substantial relief. Though the party has done badly in London, this will have come as no surprise in a city which has become increasingly difficult terrain for the Conservatives and where there were considerable swings to Labour at the last general election. Holding on to key flagship councils such as Wandsworth and Westminster was probably the height of Tory ambitions in the capital. In the rest of the Country, results were better for the Prime Minister’s party and overall the Conservatives will be happy with their performance in smaller town and cities such as Swindon and Nuneaton. More importantly for those who are interested in the future of EU-UK relations, it may well have helped the Prime Minister to placate Conservatives who might have considered rebelling against the government in the upcoming Brexit debates.
For continental observers this may seem like an over reaction, local government in the United Kingdom has fairly limited powers and Councillors concerns are more along the lines of fixing local roads than trying to solve the tricky problem of the Irish border. However British voters have often used local polls as a way to send a message to the sitting government of the day and for Theresa May, holding off Labour in London and performing decently in the rest of England will have helped to solidify her hold over the Conservative party. This will be welcome relief for the Prime Minister as she is currently trying to resolve a split within her cabinet over the UK’s ideal post-Brexit customs regime.
The current government position is that the UK is considering two options, one of which it hopes can overcome the scepticism of the European Union and the Irish government and move negotiations forwards. The ‘Maximum facilitation’ regime (Max Fac), where Britain would use technology and trusted trader schemes to keep border infrastructure between Northern Ireland and the Republic to a minimum would still be seen by some as instituting a hard border between the two states. Despite the difficulties associated with this, it is broadly favoured by the European Research Group, the pro hard Brexit wing of the Conservative party. It is also said to be supported by a narrow majority in Cabinet. The alternative is the ‘customs partnership’ model, where Britain collects tariffs on behalf of the EU and provides a rebate to companies whose goods are sold in the UK rather than being re-exported to EU member states, reports suggest that this has some support from the more pro-European sections of the cabinet.
The Conservatives’ relatively good results in the local elections may well have persuaded some of Theresa May’s sceptics that in biding her time before committing to either of these options, she can count on significant public support in areas outside of London. This may make the numerous upcoming parliamentary votes on Brexit slightly easier to navigate for the Prime Minister and her cabinet. However the only nugget of information we will have gained for certain from this election is that, for political commentators at least, it’s never just about rubbish collection.