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U.K. Conservatives drubbed in local elections, putting more pressure on Theresa May

English voters frustrated with the deadlock over Brexit have punished Prime Minister Theresa May's Conservatives as well as the main opposition Labour Party in local elections, early results showed on Friday.

Labour also fares poorly, but parties who back a 2nd referendum gained - Liberal Democrats, Greens

The British Conservatives, led by Prime Minister Theresa May, took a hammering in local elections on Thursday as Brexit-weary voters expressed frustration over the country's stalled departure from the European Union. (Aaron Chown/PA via AP)

English voters frustrated with the deadlock over Brexit have punished Prime Minister Theresa May's Conservatives as well as the main opposition Labour Party in local elections, early results showed on Friday.

Thursday's voting for seats on local councils in England provided a stark display of how Britain's 2016 vote to leave the European Union has split voters beyond traditional party lines.

Brexit has damaged the standing of the big parties, both of which are internally divided over how or even whether to lead Britain out of the EU, and have struggled to deliver a coherent message to voters on either side.

With 90 per cent of results in, the Conservative Party had suffered a net loss of 1,124 seats on English local councils that were up for re-election, down by around a quarter. Labour, which would typically aim to gain hundreds of seats in a mid-term vote, instead had lost 100.

Before May addressed Conservatives in Wales on Friday, one audience member shouted, "Why don't you resign?"

May told her party in Wales: "There was a simple message from yesterday's elections, to both us and the Labour Party: just get on and deliver Brexit."

In rare agreement was Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who said there was now a "huge impetus" on every legislator to "get a deal done ... parliament has to resolve this issue. I think that is very clear."

The Liberal Democrats, led by Vince Cable, gained ground at the expense of Labour and the Conservatives in this week's local races. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

The main beneficiaries of the swing against the two main parties were the pro-EU Liberal Democrats, who campaigned on a straightforward demand for a new referendum, aiming to reverse Brexit. They had won 599 councillors so far, doubling their seats. The Greens, who also back a second Brexit referendum, gained 164 seats.

Activists said the Liberal Democrats' clear message — that Britain needed a second referendum to break the parliamentary deadlock over the country's future relationship with the EU — had helped turn the tide.

"It just seems voters, period, [are] saying: 'A plague on both your houses,'" said John Curtice, Britain's leading polling expert.

The pro-Brexit UK Independence Party (UKIP) lost seats, but its former leader has set up a new Brexit Party, which was not contesting Thursday's vote and had called for supporters to stay home or spoil their ballots.

While offering only a partial and imperfect picture of Britain's voting intentions, the elections for more than 8,000 seats on councils — administrative bodies responsible for day-to-day decisions — also showed a frustration with local issues.

Labour sources said their party had little to fear from the results so far, saying it was always going to be a "tough" battle in councils that traditionally favour the Conservatives.

Tough was also the word the Conservatives used to describe the local elections, with some pinning the blame for the party's bad showing on the deadlock in Parliament, which has rejected May's Brexit deal three times.

'Message received': Labour official

Nearly three years since the United Kingdom voted 52 per cent to 48 per cent to leave the EU, there is still no agreement among British politicians about when, how or even if the divorce should take place.

Britain was due to have left the EU on March 29, but May has been unable to get her deal approved by Parliament, and is now seeking the support of Labour, led by self-identified democratic socialist Jeremy Corbyn. Talks next week are not expected to reach a breakthrough.

It is still unclear how the deadlock might be broken, though some say May might call a general election, a prospect Curtice said could end in another parliament where no party has an overall majority.

The Conservatives had been bracing for big losses in Thursday's elections — something that could revive calls for May to step down and for a change in Brexit policy.

Jeremy Corbyn speaks to the media Friday during a meeting with local activists following the results of local elections in Sale, Greater Manchester. (Phil Noble/Reuters)

Many Conservative Euroskeptics fear the newly launched Brexit Party of veteran anti-EU campaigner Nigel Farage, which did not contest the local polls but is expected to do well in the European elections later this month.

That has encouraged some Conservatives to call for the government to take a tougher stance on Brexit and demand a clean split with the EU. Some Labour backers have suggested the party should move to supporting a second referendum after saying the Liberal Democrats had benefited from their clear-cut stance on Brexit.

"We've seen gains in both Remain and Leave areas, with huge swings to us in both former Conservative and Labour seats," Luisa Porritt, a Liberal Democrat councillor, told Reuters.

"Given our unapologetically anti-Brexit stance, this bodes very well for the upcoming European elections."

Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament's Brexit co-ordinator, was also pleased with the Liberal Democrats' "excellent results," tweeting that it offered "real momentum for pro-Europeans in the UK now ahead of #EUelections2019."

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