FOR the Conservatives, it was a triumph of low expectations. Local elections are supposed to be punishment beatings for governing parties, especially when they have been in power for eight years. But the Conservatives managed to avoid significant pain during council elections on May 3rd, while Labour failed to land any damaging blows. Results so far reveal only a modest shift in British politics, with neither Labour nor the Conservatives making incisive forays onto each other’s turf.

The Conservatives lost none of their flagship councils in London, despite doom-laden predictions from the press (encouraged by Conservative Party apparatchiks keen to lower expectations). Meanwhile, in the West Midlands, the Tories made advances in the suburbs and towns that tend to swing elections. They gained ground in Dudley, snatching seats from UKIP. In Walsall, they became the biggest party. In nearby Nuneaton & Bedworth, which contains the closest thing Britain has to a proverbial swing seat, the Conservatives knocked Labour out of power, even if Labour still remains the largest party there. The Conservatives did lose control of Trafford, a well-to-do borough in Greater Manchester, but Labour still fell short of a majority there. And Labour also took control of Plymouth. Beyond that, happy stories for Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, were thin on the ground. “There isn't really much for the Labour Party to celebrate this morning,” said Sir John Curtice, a pollster.

Labour did make big gains in London. Expectations, however, were for something more. Wandsworth and Westminster, two totemic Tory councils, did not fall, despite Labour’s noisy campaigns in both. Yet both councils represented a stiff challenge for Labour, with a heroic swings necessary in some wards. Its failure to secure Barnet will rankle more. Barnet, now London’s most-populous borough, was supposed to be the straightforward one. But allegations of anti-Semitism that have plagued the Labour Party in recent months will not have helped in a borough that is home to Britain’s biggest Jewish community.

Labour is split between its magical thinkers and its pragmatists. In the general election of 2017 the magical thinkers won. Blind optimism about the prospects of Mr Corbyn and an extremely punchy campaign in places such as Canterbury, which voted Labour for the first time in its history, proved a remarkably successful strategy. This year’s election was a vindication for those who offer orthodox criticism of Mr Corbyn’s leadership: although Labour is strengthening its vote in cities, it is losing ground in towns.

The only party to enjoy an objectively happy evening was the Liberal Democrats. The party had a successful time, albeit mainly in one part of the country. In Richmond-upon-Thames, an area of London stuffed with expensive houses and Remain voters, the Lib Dems regained control of the council. Sir Vince Cable’s party even hung on to Sutton, a slightly less prosperous London borough. Not too much should be read into this. The Lib Dems are still formidable—or, according to their rivals, deeply annoying—operators at a local level. The politics of south London’s leafy suburbs are unique. Those pointing to a resurgence of Britain’s forgotten centre should not get their hopes up too high.

One obituary was written on the night. UKIP confirmed its place in history as a political suicide bomber. Its voters drifted away, largely to the Conservatives, but a significant chunk—in places such as Plymouth—went to Labour, too. Paul Oakley, the party’s own general secretary, went down a different metaphorical road, comparing UKIP to the Black Death. “It comes along, it causes disruption then it goes dormant,” said Mr Oakley, to a nonplussed BBC presenter. A party that won 4m votes in the 2015 general election was reduced to two councillors (by late morning). The clown-car that ran over the British establishment has driven off a cliff.

But once the smoke from UKIP’s wreckage has cleared, the national picture will be one of stasis. Neither Labour nor the Conservatives shows any prospect of making decisive gains over the other. Britain’s period of political paralysis is far from over.

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