Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the U.K. opposition Labour party, departs from his home in London, U.K. (Photographer: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg)

May and Corbyn Both Bruised by U.K. Voters’ Brexit Backlash

(Bloomberg) -- Voters in England punished both Theresa May’s Conservatives and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour opposition in local elections, piling pressure on the two party leaders to resolve the Brexit crisis paralyzing British politics.

Britain’s major parties interpreted their poor results as an angry demand from a frustrated population to deal with Brexit, which has locked Parliament in a stalemate for months.

Cross-party talks to agree a way forward for the U.K.’s divorce from the European Union are due to resume Tuesday. Senior Labour and Conservative officials will spend the weekend trying to work out whether they will be more damaged by compromising to wrap up a deal, or by sticking to their guns.

“There was a simple message from yesterday’s elections to both us and the Labour Party: Just get on and deliver Brexit,” May said in a speech to Conservatives in Wales.

“An arrangement has to be made, a deal has to be done and Parliament has to resolve this issue,” Corbyn said later, in comments welcomed by May. “I think that is very, very clear.”

May and Corbyn Both Bruised by U.K. Voters’ Brexit Backlash

Forced Delay

Britain was due to leave the EU on March 29 but May has been forced to delay the departure until as late as Oct. 31, after failing three times to get her withdrawal deal approved by Parliament.

Against that backdrop, more than 8,400 council seats were up for grabs in mainly rural parts of England. No elections took place in London.

May and Corbyn Both Bruised by U.K. Voters’ Brexit Backlash

The ruling Conservatives paid the heaviest price for overseeing the Brexit chaos. By the time all 248 councils had declared their results late Friday, May’s Tories were down 1,334 seats, much worse than most election experts had predicted.

Corbyn’s party has also struggled to cope with internal divisions over Brexit. Labour members of Parliament represent both strongly pro-Brexit and pro-EU constituencies and Corbyn has attempted to bridge that gap.

Labour Losses

Labour had been expected to pick up many of the council positions the Tories lost, but instead found itself down 82 seats. The big winners were the pro-EU Liberal Democrats, who were up 703 seats and nearly doubled the number of councils they control. The Green Party also had a good election, adding 194 seats.

The other big group of winners were independent candidates, those not aligned to any party. In practice, these are often councillors who were in a party but have left it. Their success may reflect anger at the main parties.

The elections took place only in some parts of the country, mainly more rural areas where the Conservatives are much stronger than Labour, and neither Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party nor the new pro-European Union Change UK party were standing. It is also normal for British voters to use local elections to punish the government.

May and Corbyn Both Bruised by U.K. Voters’ Brexit Backlash

All that makes it difficult to read the results directly across into what would happen at a general election. But the numbers were bad enough that neither the Conservatives nor Labour are likely to want to try to find out.

Repeated Pain

And if May and Corbyn think this election is painful, in three weeks they face another dose. European elections -- held because Britain hasn’t left the EU -- will take place across the country. Both the Brexit Party and Change UK are standing in those, and are likely to make life even more uncomfortable for the larger parties.

“We’re asking people to vote for elected roles we had promised would no longer exist,” Home Secretary Sajid Javid told the Scottish Conservative conference in Aberdeen. “We shouldn’t be surprised if people tick the protest box on the ballot paper. Without anything else at stake, it will be a verdict on the delivery of Brexit.”

For all the talk of finding a compromise, there are huge barriers for both leaders in delivering one. Many Conservative MPs argue that May’s current deal isn’t Brexit at all, and further moves toward Labour risk driving more away.

Big Rebellions

Meanwhile, Corbyn is under pressure from his MPs to reject Brexit altogether and opt for a second referendum. Even if the leaders can reach an agreement, each is likely to face big rebellions in their ranks when pushing any deal through Parliament.

As she took the stage to address the Welsh Conservatives on Friday, May was heckled. “Why don’t you resign?” a member of the audience shouted. “We don’t want you.” If others were too polite to say it, it’s now a widespread sentiment in her party.

Corbyn meanwhile, if he goes for a deal, risks the prospect of being attacked by his own side for enabling the “Tory Brexit” he has so long railed against.

But with Brexit stuck, politicians are increasingly desperate. Former Conservative Party Chairman Eric Pickles, a long-time loyalist who now sits in the House of Lords, said he could back a second referendum.

“If Parliament can’t sort it out, then -- I can’t believe I’m saying this because I was absolutely opposed to a second referendum -- then a clear choice has got to be put to the public in terms of what they want again,” Pickles told Sky News. “Do they want Mrs. May’s deal, do they want to have Brexit without a period of transition, or do they want to stay in the European Union?”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.