Scotland’s Future Casts Shadow Over Johnson’s Election Win
(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Boris Johnson is celebrating triumphant early results in U.K. elections, but he faces trouble ahead with Scotland cementing support for its independence movement.
In a key set of local and national votes, Johnson’s ruling Conservatives tightened their grip on the pro-Brexit former industrial heartlands of northern England. They took the parliamentary seat of Hartlepool, which overwhelmingly backed leaving the European Union, from the opposition Labour Party for the first time since the electoral district was created in 1974.
Tories hailed that result as evidence that Johnson has permanently changed the British political landscape, and that recent squalls over his expenses and his handling of the coronavirus pandemic didn’t matter to ordinary voters.
Speaking to reporters in Hartlepool, Johnson said the win showed the electorate saw that the Conservatives “did get Brexit done” and would continue the vaccine rollout and ensure a strong economic recovery.
“There is genius and talent and enthusiasm and flair everywhere in the country, but opportunity is not evenly distributed and that’s what I’m trying to change,” Johnson said, re-stating his longstanding pledge to “level up” disadvantaged regions of the country.
But north of the border in Scotland, the prime minister is far less popular. Instead of a Tory surge, a pro-independence movement led by the dominant Scottish National Party of Nicola Sturgeon continued to hold sway.
She is pushing for a new mandate to call a referendum on whether Scotland should break away from the rest of the U.K., and wants a clear majority in the Scottish Parliament to pressure Johnson to grant one.
In an interview with the Telegraph, Johnson said he will “see what happens” in the elections but reinforced his opposition to a new referendum on Scottish independence. “I think a referendum in the current context is irresponsible and reckless,” he said.
The outcome of the vote in Scotland remained on a knife edge, with the SNP hoping to clinch at least 65 of the 129 seats. Sturgeon said that while her party was on course to secure a fourth term in power, it was always a “very long shot” to get a majority because of Scotland’s electoral system.
The final result hinges on nine marginal constituency seats the SNP needs to win, according to John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. The SNP had won three of those by late Friday, one of them by a mere 170 votes. It hadn’t managed to oust the Conservatives or Labour in four others, making a majority far less likely.
Results are spread over two days because of the impact of the pandemic, and the final outcome is not expected until late on Saturday.
What will only be clear then is whether there’s been the jump in support for the pro-independence Green Party that polls predicted. That would guarantee a majority in the Edinburgh legislature for a vote on breaking away from the rest of the U.K. and escalate the standoff with London over Scotland’s constitutional future.
“If there is a pro-independence majority in the Scottish parliament, I’m not sure there are other democracies across the world where we would be having the discussion about whether a politician, a leader of a government, is going to respect that outcome or not,” Sturgeon told Sky News as the votes were counted. “It really is absurd.”
Meanwhile, Labour Party leader Keir Starmer said Friday’s results were “bitterly disappointing.” He conceded his party, which has not won a general election since Tony Blair was in charge in 2005, had lost the trust of voters.
“We must reconnect and rebuild trust with working people, particularly in places like Hartlepool,” Starmer said.
Counting of votes in for English local councils, city mayors including in London, and Scottish parliamentary seats will continue over the weekend.
Key developments so far include:
- With results declared in 72 councils in England, out of a total of 143, the Tories had gained power in eight and Labour had lost power in four
- Conservative Ben Houchen was re-elected as mayor of Tees Valley in northeast England in a landslide, with 73% of the vote
- With results declared in just over half of the 60 seats in the Welsh parliament, the Tories have taken one of their top targets, but Labour remains in the lead
- A new pro-independence Scottish party led by former SNP leader Alex Salmond, whose public falling out with Sturgeon had threatened to undermine her, looked unlikely to gain any seats
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