At first glance, Thursday’s local elections seemed to offer something for everyone (except for Ukip, of course).
But Labour should be worried – really, really worried.
First, the upside – at least for self-styled progressives. The referendum has clearly removed Ukip’s main raison d’etre, and a series of soap-opera-style leadership contests has rendered it a laughing stock. Purple is now officially as unfashionable as the Black Death – until, perhaps, it finally dawns on former Farage fans that post-Brexit Britain is going to look pretty much like pre-Brexit Britain, only poorer.
The main beneficiaries of that collapse appear to have been the Tories. Not only did they hold on in London, but they seem to have won over erstwhile Ukip voters in places – most obviously in towns like Dudley in the West Midlands – which could deliver them a bunch of gains at the next election.
The loss of one or two true-blue councils elsewhere – Plymouth, for instance – will sting, but these really aren’t that serious, although they will worry a few sitting Conservative MPs.
That said, the Lib Dems’ impressive performance in Richmond should give the Tories some genuine cause for concern – particularly because (along with results in other parts of South West London and, indeed, the South West more generally) it suggests that Vince Cable’s party is finally out of intensive care and, if not quite fit for discharge, at least sitting up and talking.
It’s all too easy to forget that one of the main reasons why David Cameron was able to win a surprise overall majority in 2015 was because Britain’s traditional third party came a very distant fourth that year.
Any signs that the Lib Dems might be capable of snatching back a handful of seats next time need to be taken very, very seriously by Brandon Lewis and James Cleverley and their team at CCHQ – not least because any return to form by the “yellow peril” opens up the possibility of Vince and his colleagues becoming king-makers once again.
At a deeper level, the results are also a reminder to Tory strategists that the party will continue to struggle to put together a convincing parliamentary majority unless it can somehow find a way to appeal to urban, ethnically-diverse, and pro-European Britain – the Britain of the future, not the past.
Still, that’s for the long term. For the moment, a combination of Ukip’s collapse and the public’s evident lack of confidence in Jeremy Corbyn and his colleagues could well see the Tories emerge once again as at least the biggest party in the next election. Indeed, if they finally start spending some serious money on the NHS and schools, and, of course, start building some houses, even an overall majority can’t be completely ruled out.
For Labour, however, the locals were a washout – and not simply because campaigners allowed the bar to be set too high beforehand, or because the party’s performance three years ago made big gains less likely.
Any opposition facing a government that has been in office as long as this one and that is so clearly struggling to deliver in so many ways should have absolutely smashed it last Thursday. But Labour didn’t. Fact.
Forget about London for a moment, and look at places like Swindon and Nuneaton. Without winning towns like them, there is no way back to power for Labour – even as the largest party in a hung parliament where the Lib Dems hold the balance of power.
Corbyn and co. can over-promise and virtue-signal their way to stunning victories in big cities and university towns. But if Thursday’s results are anything to go by, that won’t be enough in the end to get them into government.