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Three victories that strain the union

The strength of the SNP and Welsh Labour shows the scale of the task in holding the union together – now the prime minister’s biggest challenge

The Conservatives triumphed in the local elections in England but the strength of the SNP and Welsh Labour shows the scale of the task in holding the union together – now the prime minister’s biggest challenge, says Bronwen Maddox 

It is not often that local elections make for political drama. But Boris Johnson showed, by the thumping victories in Hartlepool and the Teesside mayoralty as well as a convincing win in the West Midlands mayoralty and a slew of council seats, that the 2019 election was no fluke. The vaccine rollout and the lifting of lockdown gave his campaign a buoyancy that is priceless in political terms; the giant inflated blimp of himself giving a double thumbs up that greeted him in Hartlepool symbolised what many voters relish in him. Theatrical garnishes in recent days like gunboats off Jersey and “saving football” won’t have hurt either – as his campaign team will no doubt have calculated.

The election results highlight the threat to the union

However, while Conservative success dominated the results in England, the SNP strengthened its position in Scotland (even if just short of a majority) as did Welsh Labour, which performed better than expected. The image of three nations with radically different political alignments (and the continuing tension in Northern Ireland, which did not have elections) shows the scale of the task Johnson faces to hold the union together. Those differences predate Brexit but the vote to leave the EU made them wider. If the UK itself breaks up, Johnson will be remembered for leading the exit from one union and triggering the end of another.

He did the right thing, then, in calling a meeting of the Welsh and Scottish leaders, and politicians from Northern Ireland, immediately when the results became clear. His loudest challenge will be from Scotland although Nicola Sturgeon’s route to forcing a new referendum is legally difficult and political pressure will be her strongest weapon. Johnson's tools will be money, reminding Scots that vaccines, furlough support and a hefty annual payment comes from Westminster; a willingness to discuss the devolution of more powers; and pressing the SNP to answer tricky questions about how it would cover Scotland’s deficit, manage a currency and handle the border with England.

It is helpful for his cause that Mark Drakeford, Wales’s first minister and a firm advocate of the union, led Welsh Labour to secure half the seats in the Senedd Cymru, the Welsh parliament, seeing off the challenge from Plaid Cymru that had threatened to push Welsh independence up the agenda. But Drakeford has yet to set out what he means by the “radical and ambitious” government he promised shortly after his party's victory was confirmed; it is likely to include a demand for more powers, which Johnson will need to take seriously. Northern Ireland could yet prove the hardest for the prime minister to manage, however, given the bitterness caused by the still-unresolved implications of the Northern Ireland protocol on movement of food, agriculture and other goods between it and Great Britain. A compromise with the EU on food and agriculture that takes the political heat out of the dispute would help.

There are questions of identity for both main parties

Immediate manoeuvring aside, each main party faces difficult questions of position and identity, even if those are most obvious for Labour. Brexit split apart the old coalitions inside each party, bringing about the astonishing reversal in politics that these results and those of the 2019 election represent.

Labour’s defeats have left the party reeling; last week, it found itself rejected and mistrusted by its old base, while its support in university towns and cities highlighted what some feel is the problem – too metropolitan and “woke” an identity to win power. Sir Keir Starmer, its leader, has now begun the changes in the senior team that many thought overdue. But his difficulty in the past year was not just trying to make the break with Corbynism. The pandemic allowed the Conservatives to take over natural Labour territory – as well as its own – by paying for people to stay home from work and delivering one of the most successful rollouts of vaccine on the planet through the NHS (albeit procured through an agile alliance with venture capitalists, universities and pharma companies). Starmer may have more chance as the government ends furlough and faces controversial decisions on the future of NHS pay and the £20-a-week uplift in Universal Credit.

The Conservatives have consolidated their support in the North East and among those who supported Brexit, at potential risk to their support from liberal Conservatives. Their greatest challenge is how to hold on to those new votes by making good the enormous but undefined promise of “levelling up”.

Johnson needs to make good on his promises – a lot rests on “levelling up”

Money is one answer. It is clear that Johnson intends to spend heavily on the areas that now support him, naming education and measures that boost jobs as his first priorities. But freeports – one of the apparent reasons for the party’s success in Teesside – arguably simply lure economic activity from elsewhere. And “levelling up” remains undefined. The danger is that his efforts fall short of expectations. Many governments, for decades, have produced regional and industrial policies to try to reverse the blight and disadvantage that is his target; the IfG has catalogued just how many initiatives have come and gone. If he cannot make good on his promises – perfectly symbolised by a twin thumbs-up but lacking much more detail so far – the support shown for him in this election could prove fragile.

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