The Scottish National Party on Saturday appeared likely to fall short of its goal of an absolute majority in the devolved parliament as it pushes for a new independence referendum, a plan condemned as reckless by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
The UK voted in local and regional elections on “Super Thursday” in its first major polls since Brexit and the pandemic. The count is much slower than usual due to virus safety measures.
Johnson’s Conservative Party has performed strongly in England, outdoing Labour in its traditional heartlands and taking control of northeastern Hartlepool in a key parliamentary by-election.
Labour held onto power in the Senedd Cymru devolved parliament in Wales and also won several high-profile mayoral races.
But the focus remained on Scotland, where a vote for the devolved parliament in Edinburgh saw the ruling SNP seek a parliamentary majority as a mandate for a fresh referendum on independence, or “indyref2”, that could reshape the UK.
The SNP so far has won 60 of the 71 seats declared but lost several target seats, leading the BBC to project it would win a total of 63 seats.
It is heading for a fourth consecutive term in power but would need 65 seats in the 129-member parliament to claim a majority at Holyrood for the first time since 2011.
Scots vote twice, once for a constituency MSP and once for a party, with those votes allocated regionally.
The proportional representation system is designed to prevent a single party like the SNP dominating.
Deputy First Minister John Sweeney earlier told BBC Radio 4 that an overall majority “was always a very, very challenging mountain for us to climb”.
But he predicted an overall majority of MSPs “committed to the holding of an independence referendum”, however. The other pro-independence party with Holyrood seats is the Scottish Greens.
Johnson in an interview with The Daily Telegraph indicated that he would not agree to a referendum even if the SNP wins a majority.
“I think a referendum in the current context is irresponsible and reckless,” Johnson said.
“There’s no case now for such a thing… I don’t think it’s what the times call for at all.”
If Westminster refuses permission, this could lead to a lengthy court battle.
Sturgeon has stressed she will only hold a legal referendum that will take place after the virus crisis is over and not before the end of 2023.
On Friday she pledged “when the time is right, to offer this country the choice of a better future”.
Previous First Minister Alex Salmond fielded a new pro-independence party called Alba calling for immediate steps towards a referendum, but admitted it was unlikely to win any seats.
He attacked Sturgeon on the Through a Scottish Prism podcast, claiming she “lost her nerve on independence” back in 2017 when she shelved a referendum bill and “has never recovered it”.
Salmond stood down as first minister after the first referendum in 2014 saw 55 percent vote “no”. Recent polls suggest “no” would win again in an immediate referendum, as many fear further upheaval post-Brexit.
The SNP pledges that an independent Scotland would seek to rejoin the European Union after most Scots opposed Brexit.
On Friday Johnson’s Tories won a landslide in the northeast parliamentary seat of Hartlepool, in a bitter blow for Labour and its leader of just over a year, Keir Starmer.
The Conservatives have also registered significant gains in council elections and mayoral races in England, embarrassing Labour.
Johnson said the vote was “very encouraging” for his government, while Starmer said he was “bitterly disappointed”.
Bucking the trend, Labour equalled its best ever result in Welsh devolved parliament Senedd Cymru after First Minister Mark Drakeford took a cautious approach to the pandemic.
In London, Labour mayor Sadiq Khan was predicted a narrow victory over Conservative Shaun Bailey.
Labour has won high-profile mayoral races including Western England and Greater Manchester and Liverpool city, where Joanne Anderson has became the UK’s first directly elected black woman mayor.
The Tories’ strong showing continued the trend from the last general election in December 2019, when Brexit was the dominant issue and Conservatives grabbed a string of seats across Labour’s so-called “Red Wall” heartlands in northern England.
This time, Johnson has benefited from Britain’s successful vaccine rollout — despite the country also suffering one of the world’s worst Covid-19 death tolls.
Sky News suggested the Tory results were down to a “Boris bounce”.
Dogged by scandals in recent weeks, Johnson also campaigned on his record of finally having “got Brexit done”.
He touted government economic support during the pandemic and the vaccine drive.
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