Results released at the weekend from the UK’s ‘super Thursday’ elections show that the country is more divided, politically, than at any time in at least a generation, with the still-significant possibility that Scotland may secede from the union.
In the biggest set of UK ballots ever outside of a general election year, Scotland re-emerged as the biggest danger to Boris Johnson’s continuing premiership. The election in that country saw parties favouring independence — the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Greens — winning a clear majority which could become the handmaiden to a second secession referendum.
The last such plebiscite in 2014 was lost by nationalists to the tune of 55-45. However, support for independence has surged since and some polls indicate that over 50% of voters now favour this option with one potential game-changer being Brexit, which 68% of the Scottish electorate voted against in 2016.
If the SNP had won a majority by itself, this may have piled insurmountable pressure on Johnson to allow a referendum. However, that worst-case scenario for the prime minister was avoided as the nationalist party fell just short of this threshold, absent the addition of Green legislators.
Johnson will be relieved by this development, and will now seek to resist a new Scottish plebiscite. He knows that, if such a ballot were to be lost, his premiership would be over more or less immediately, just as David Cameron’s was in 2016 when he was on the losing side of the Brexit ballot he himself called.
He will now argue that a referendum on independence in the near term would put the UK’s economic recovery from the pandemic at risk. Logical as this argument is to many, however, the lesson of Brexit is that emotion can be the chief driver of voter sentiment. And the SNP and Greens will now raise the tempo on this issue in a battle of wills with Johnson that could ultimately see litigation on the issue being decided by the UK Supreme Court.
The deep divisions in the UK's body politic were also shown by the election results in England and Wales. In Wales, Labour performed strongest, securing half the seats in that nation’s devolved legislature which matched its best ever achievement there.
Meanwhile in England, Johnson’s Conservatives performed generally strongly, including winning a big Westminster by-election in the longstanding Labour stronghold of Hartlepool with a swing of some 16 percentage points; retaining the West Midlands mayoral seat of power with an enhanced majority; and securing a wide number of council seats to boot. This confirmed the powerful post-Brexit position that the party now holds in much of England that was first revealed in the 2019 general election.
In performing so well in England, the Conservatives bypassed a series of scandals that have hit the party in the last few weeks. Perhaps the most damaging revelations surround Johnson’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. A growing number of voices, including from within the Conservative Party itself, are calling for a public inquiry as soon as possible.
This comes as new accounts emerge of a battle of wills within Downing St that saw a reportedly sceptical Johnson at odds with some key advisers over whether to implement a second pandemic lockdown in November. The prime minister reportedly said he would rather see dead “bodies piling up” than introduce a new sweeping wave of restrictions.
Such a probe still has political danger for Johnson in that there is a relatively wide consensus that he and the UK Government made significant mistakes, especially in 2020, and his political credibility and authority has been tested repeatedly with increased doubts whether he is up to the job. While many of the decisions he has made during the crisis have been very tough with no easy answers, his approach has too often been chaotic and incoherent.
Yet, for now at least, voter concerns about the prime minister held by English voters were largely swept aside for at least two reasons. Firstly, the UK economy has regained growth again, amidst some predictions that the country is on course for its biggest boom since the 1940s.
This spurt of growth has been enabled by the second reason why the prime minister remains popular in many quarters. That is the country’s rapid roll-out of its vaccination programme which is allowing consumers to go out and spend surplus capital stored up during the pandemic.
The success of the UK jabs scheme has buoyed the popularity of the Conservatives, despite one of the highest per capita death rates from the pandemic, and an economy harder hit than almost any G20 country.
While Thursday’s ballot highlighted the different political directions of England, Scotland, and Wales, Johnson’s hold on power appears significantly stronger now than during much of 2020. This may be deceptive, however, given the volatility of his premiership which leaves open the possibility that his term could yet end sooner than many now expect, especially if he is forced to back down on a new Scottish referendum.
• Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics