Prime Minister Boris Johnson is celebrating triumphant early results in U.K. elections but he faces trouble ahead with a resurgent Scottish independence movement also making crucial gains.
In a key set of local and national votes, Johnson’s ruling Conservatives tightened their grip on the former industrial heartlands of northern England, dealing a heavy blow to the main opposition Labour Party.
Johnson’s side won an emphatic victory over center-left Labour in the coastal town of Hartlepool, taking the parliamentary seat for the first since its creation 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 voters saw that the Conservatives “did get Brexit done” and would continue the vaccine rollout and ensure a strong economic recovery — “making sure we go from jabs, jabs, jabs to jobs, jobs, jobs.”
“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.
The outcome remained on a knife edge, with the SNP hoping to win at least 65 of the 129 seats in the Scottish Parliament. 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 outcome hinges on nine marginal constituency seats the SNP needs to win, John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, told the BBC. The SNP had won two of those by late afternoon on Friday, one of them by a mere 170 votes.
“I pledge to get back to work immediately to continue to steer this country through crisis of Covid,” Sturgeon said after holding her district in Glasgow. “Then, when time is right, to offer this country the choice of a better future.”
Regardless of the result, Johnson is unlikely to abandon his stance that Scotland shouldn’t have a referendum anytime soon.
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 57 councils in England, out of a total of 143, the Tories had gained power in 5 and Labour had lost power in 4
- 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 a third of the 60 seats in the Welsh parliament, the Tories have taken one of their top targets, but Labour remains in the lead
— With assistance by Alastair Reed, Emily Ashton, and Katharine Gemmell