Brexit-Bashing in U.K. Polls Makes Case for Cross-Party Deal

(Bloomberg) --

Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party emerges wounded from Britain’s local elections. How he interprets the results will be key to Prime Minister Theresa May’s chances of getting a Brexit deal over the line.

Both Labour and May’s Conservatives were punished by voters frustrated by the Brexit stalemate, almost three years after the 2016 referendum. The result suggests Corbyn isn’t well served by a general election now, with his party divided over leaving the European Union and its message to voters still deliberately ambiguous.

Brexit-Bashing in U.K. Polls Makes Case for Cross-Party Deal

That could mean good news for the prime minister, who has set a deadline of next week for cross-party talks on Brexit to conclude. She’s hinted she’s willing to offer Labour a lot of what it wants, with the aim of putting a tweaked deal back to Parliament and trying to push it through with enough Labour votes to offset rebellious Tories.

Opposition parties heading for victory tend to do much better in local elections than Corbyn appears to have done last night, according to pollster Matt Singh.

So if Corbyn can’t win an election with his party divided over Brexit and the divorce from the EU still the dominant issue, there’s a case to be made for him to facilitate Britain’s exit and move on to talk about the things Labour can win on -- such as austerity and inequality.

‘Sort It’

John McDonnell, Labour’s economy spokesman and a leading figure in the talks with May, said he heard the message from voters: “‘Brexit - sort it.’ Message received,” he said in a tweet. After his post was interpreted as evidence Labour would do a deal with May, he hedged it with a follow-up saying he only meant: “we need to get on with sorting this out whichever way.” The ambiguity remains, at least for now.

“Voters don’t vote for divided parties,” John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, told the BBC. “What is very clear is that both of them are significantly weaker than they were 12 months ago.”

The local election result could also make Labour fear the threat posed by Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party in the European Parliament elections scheduled for May 23. Farage is targeting Labour voters as well as Tories, and has a track record of picking them off.

Brexit-Bashing in U.K. Polls Makes Case for Cross-Party Deal

More Labour constituencies voted Leave than Remain in the 2016 referendum, which is why Corbyn is in talks with May in the first place. But, in the aftermath of Thursday’s results, the opposition leader will also come under pressure over his willingness to help May out of the hole she dug herself.

Barry Gardiner, the party’s trade spokesman, described the situation as Labour trying to “bail out” the Conservatives, comments that earned him a Twitter-storm of criticism. Helping the Tories is not a good look among Labour voters and activists.

Gains by the Liberal Democrats, who have opposed Brexit from the start and want a second referendum, will also give ammunition to those in Labour arguing that the party should more forcefully back a re-run of the 2016 vote. May’s team are already spinning the result as a call to Labour to help get Brexit delivered.

Calling Labour

“If those Labour MPs in Leave seats -- those heartlands where they’re losing -- had voted with the prime minister over the last few months, we would already have left the European Union,’’ Conservative Party Chairman Brandon Lewis told the BBC. “In 2017, both our main party manifestos promised to respect the referendum and leave the EU -- we need to get on and do that. I hope the Labour Party will step up.”

Who Corbyn decides to listen to could define the course of Brexit, as well as his own career.

Brexit-Bashing in U.K. Polls Makes Case for Cross-Party Deal

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.