In recent memory, the once-mighty Conservatives were dismissed as a denuded electoral force. Left-wingers recited reasons why the party would struggle to ever exceed 36 per cent of the vote: Ukip had split the right; the Tories were struggling to appeal to young people and ethnic minorities, and their “brand” remained tarnished.
But last night’s local elections confirmed what the polls have long indicated: Britain is entering a new period of Conservative hegemony. Though the contests were local in name, they were national in nature. Never before had they had been held in the shadow of a forthcoming general election. As voters went to the polls they had Theresa May’s remarkable denunciation of Brussels ringing in their ears.
Some predicted that the Prime Minister would be punished for triggering a snap contest. But all the signs are that she will be rewarded. At the time of writing, the Conservatives have gained 138 council seats – the best performance by a governing party since 1974. Brexit has provided May with a project to unite a fragmented right. Ukip, robbed of its raison d’être, has retained no seats and lost 30. For former Labour voters, the purple stuff has proved a gateway drug to the blue stuff. By transforming herself into the Brexit Queen, May has elevated voting Tory into a patriotic duty, a defence of the national interest.
Against this, Labour has little defence. Jeremy Corbyn is the least popular opposition leader in history and the party is irretrievably divided. Its Brexit message is muddled and it has failed to regain the economic credibility lost in the crash. Labour’s parlous performance last night was predictable and predicted. Having so far lost 73 seats, it has become the first opposition to shed councillors in three successive contests.
That John McDonnell’s main defence was that the party had not endured a “wipeout” is a mark of its predicament. He pleaded that the more voters saw of Corbyn, the more they would like him. But the evidence to date suggests the reverse. Though Conservative strategists fear that their local gains could depress turnout among their supporters, Labour candidates fear a worse fate on 8 June. In the 1983 local elections, the Tories beat the opposition by just 3 per cent. In the general election a month later, they won by 15 per cent. Only in Wales, where Labour is in power and ran a distinctive non-Corbynite campaign, did the opposition exceed expectations last night.
Though the Liberal Democrats have acquired renewed purpose as the anti-Brexit party, they too endured losses (shedding 20 seats). To speak of the “48 per cent” is misleading when around two-thirds have accepted the referendum result. Predictions that Tim Farron’s party would double or even triple its seats at the general election now look hasty. Only the SNP looks like an unambiguous check on Tory hegemony and even in Scotland, the Conservatives are resurgent.
Brexit, an electoral prize for the Conservatives could yet prove a governing curse. May’s take-no-prisoners rhetoric will make it even harder for her to perform the compromises she has previously acknowledged as inevitable. Political fortunes, as her two predecessors (Gordon Brown and David Cameron) can testify, can change remarkably quickly. But as so often in their history, the venerable Conservatives once again appear unstoppable.