THE count took place in near silence, it was that close. As ballot boxes were brought into the Barclaycard Arena in Birmingham, the only noise was the flutter of votes being tallied, recalls Andrew Mitchell, a local Conservative MP. In the end Andy Street, the Conservative candidate, was elected mayor of the West Midlands, a Labour heartland. Predictions followed that his triumph augured a Tory landslide in the general election due the following month. A year on from Mr Street’s victory, things look rather different. “He wouldn’t win it today,” says Mr Mitchell, bluntly.

The West Midlands has long been a turning point that failed to turn for the Conservatives. Rather than herald their resurgence in the region, Mr Street’s victory was followed by a Tory washout. But ahead of local elections due on May 3rd, the Conservatives hope—once again—that the West Midlands could provide a few bright spots on what is likely to be a dark night for the party. Labour, while expecting to make gains overall, could still lose ground in a few key places. The two parties are locked in an ungainly waltz, gliding into one part of the country while losing their footing in another.

The national picture looks grim for the Conservatives. Nearly half of England’s local councils, including its largest cities, are holding elections (see map). Some, such as Manchester, are close to one-party states for Labour, which also looks likely to tighten its grip on London. Local elections are usually tough on the governing party, and after the Tories’ eight years in power, in which they have presided over deep cuts to local services and the turbulence of Brexit, next month’s vote will be no exception. Austerity has seeped up. The poorest were first to suffer its impact. Now its effects are being felt by those who are more comfortable. Well-off boroughs like Trafford, just outside Manchester, look likely to break for Labour.

Labour, however, faces its own troubles. Although the party will cement its control of Britain’s cities, it may slip back in towns. Take Walsall. The marginal council, on the outskirts of Birmingham, may be one of the few sources of solace for the Tories. Last year the northern part of the borough returned a Conservative MP—a keen Brexiteer in an area where 74% voted to leave—for the first time since 1976. Labour’s membership has bulged in metropolitan areas, with some local parties trebling in size; in Walsall it has risen by barely a third. Jeremy Corbyn, the party’s left-wing leader, is locally “seen as a bit of a buffoon”, reckons Mike Bird, the leader of the borough’s Conservatives.

Both parties are picking the carcass of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which won almost a fifth of the vote in Walsall in 2015. Brexit is less of an issue than it was, with Britain’s departure from the EU now seen as a matter of when rather than whether, argues Sean Coughlan, Labour’s local leader. “People are now looking for a different offer: support, investment and communities,” he says. In nearby Dudley, where five seats are held by a deflating UKIP, the Conservatives are confident of taking control (Theresa May paid a visit to the Black Country town this week). But Labour’s strategists are optimistic. An assumption that the Tories would be the sole beneficiaries of UKIP’s implosion proved wrong in last year’s general election. Disaffected Labour voters “hate the Tories far, far more than they might distrust Corbyn,” says one former Labour staffer.

In Birmingham, as in most big cities, Labour is expected to extend its already-comfortable lead. This is despite a long-running strike by rubbish collectors that left the city resembling a dump for much of last summer. A small chance of a shock remains. Unlike some other cities going to the polls, Birmingham is not a Labour fief. The Conservatives ran it as part of a coalition as recently as 2012. The number of councillors is being reduced from 120 to 101, creating more uncertainty.

But Tory attempts to woo Brummie voters are chequered. So-called “Erdington Conservatism”, which argued that Tory policy should focus on the working-class, such as residents of that deprived area of the city, briefly flourished in the party under the influence of Nick Timothy, a former aide to Mrs May. It did not work. Nine of Birmingham’s ten MPs are Labour. “The position for Birmingham is difficult,” says Mr Mitchell in his constituency office behind an undertaker’s in Sutton Coldfield, a Tory blue dot on Birmingham’s otherwise red electoral map.

There is a danger of reading too much into local elections. Labour performed dreadfully in those in May 2017, and shockingly better in the general election one month later, points out Ben Page, head of Ipsos MORI, a pollster. Turnout may be low—it is the fourth vote in three years, after two general elections and a referendum—making results still less predictable.

British politics is in an oddly frozen state, which the local elections are unlikely to thaw. Labour colouring cities a deeper shade of red will do little to improve its prospects of power if it also loses ground in towns. The occasional foray into Labour heartlands will not bring the Conservatives any closer to a majority unless they can maintain a toehold in cities. This dilemma is clearest in Birmingham and its surrounding towns. Whoever can crack the West Midlands is well placed to crack the rest of the country.