Fri, May 05, 2017 - Page 7 News List

Teresa May toughens stance on Brexit

STATE OF PARTIES:Anthony Wells of polling firm YouGov said that local elections, with results due today, would provide data on patterns of support and performance

AFP, LONDON

British Prime Minister Theresa May yesterday faced her first nationwide electoral test as she toughens her Brexit position weeks before a crucial general election.

Britain yesterday was to choose thousands of new local councilors in a vote linked to the strength of May’s Conservatives, which opinion polls suggest are on course for a thumping victory in the June 8 parliamentary elections.

Nearly 5,000 local seats were being contested in England, Scotland and Wales, along with eight metropolitan mayoralties.

Experts say that the results should not be used to predict the outcome of next month’s vote, as such elections are normally fought on local issues and are often used to punish the sitting government.

However, the proximity of the general election and the political upheaval caused by last year’s Brexit referendum has created a unique context.

May on March 29 invoked Britain’s formal notice of its intention to part ways with the EU.

Two weeks ago she called the surprise general election to strengthen her mandate as she heads into EU negotiations, and she is well aware that Brexit will be on many voters’ minds.

Polling stations opened at 7am and were to close at 10pm, with results due today.

Speaking outside her Downing Street office on Wednesday, May took aim at Brussels for making “threats against Britain” over the divorce proceedings.

The two sides have clashed over the costs of the exit, prompting May to accuse the EU of toughening its stance in statements “deliberately timed to affect the result of the general election” next month.

Opposition leaders have claimed that the prime minister is using the EU talks as a distraction from other issues, with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn accusing May of “playing party games with Brexit.”

Labour is polling more than 20 points behind the Conservatives, with the local elections expected to indicate the challenge facing Corbyn’s party ahead of the general election.

“They will provide some vital information about the pattern of support and where parties are performing particularly strongly or weakly,” said Anthony Wells of polling company YouGov.

“The Conservatives are doing very well and that is almost certainly likely to have some spillover into the local elections,” University of Cardiff political science professor Roger Scully said.

However, drawing a national picture from yesterday’s vote will be made harder by the absence of council elections in England’s biggest cities, where Labour is traditionally strong.

“Let’s see what happens. That might be an interesting measure of how things are going more generally, and how accurate the polling is,” a senior Labour source said.

The smaller, pro-EU Liberal Democrats, who were almost wiped out in the 2015 general election after entering a coalition government with the Conservatives, are hoping to pick up some momentum for next month’s vote.

By contrast the UK Independence Party is predicted to lose most of its council seats as it struggles to define itself now that its principal goal — Brexit — is on its way to being achieved.

Meanwhile, in Scotland, the local elections will indicate the strength of the ruling Scottish National Party, which has used the Brexit vote to call for a new referendum on independence.

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