The battle for the future of Scotland has begun after a dramatic set of British election results left the U.K. starkly divided.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative party cemented its grip on Labour’s former heartlands in northern England, while in Scotland parties pushing to split away from the U.K. won a historic majority.

That threw Johnson and Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon into what could be a vicious and lengthy showdown over whether a new referendum should be held over Scottish independence.

Johnson’s success also plunged Labour’s Keir Starmer, his rival for the role of prime minister, into a crisis. On Saturday, the leader of the main opposition tried to regain control of the party by downgrading his deputy in a move that only made matters worse, sparking angry criticism from senior colleagues.

The elections that took place across the U.K. on Thursday served as a bellwether for the mood among a nation that was among the most affected by the pandemic. They comprised town and city mayors, district councils, the Welsh and Scottish Parliaments, the London assembly, and a special vote to choose a new member of Parliament for the Brexit-backing town of Hartlepool.

Johnson went into the elections on the back foot, fending off allegations of misdemeanors and incompetence in office, and he emerged from it stronger. The political debate had been dominated by sensational claims he broke rules over the luxury refurbishment of his official residence.

But voters didn’t care.

In Scotland, too, Sturgeon had suffered setbacks in the run-up to the elections. But while her SNP fell one seat short of an outright majority, she will claim her party’s unprecedented dominance of the Scottish Parliament — allied with a strong result for the pro-independence Greens — give her a mandate to break away from the rest of the U.K.

That contest seems set to define British politics for the next few years. It will put the U.K.’s two most formidable political campaigners against each other, fresh from their own electoral successes.

The skirmishing began immediately. Sturgeon warned Johnson would have to go to the Supreme Court to stop her from triggering a referendum. “There is simply no democratic justification whatsoever for Boris Johnson or anyone else seeking to block the right of the people of Scotland to choose our future,” Sturgeon said in her victory speech.

Johnson responded by convening a rare “summit” of all the leaders of the devolved nations to try to plot a joint plan for recovery from the pandemic, and invited Sturgeon to be part of “Team U.K.”

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits Jacksons Wharf Marina in Hartlepool following local elections on Friday. | REUTERS
U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits Jacksons Wharf Marina in Hartlepool following local elections on Friday. | REUTERS

The risk of refusing that offer is that Sturgeon will be seen as rejecting central government support at a time when the recovery is fragile, the vaccination rollout is not yet finished and economic help are still desperately needed.

“I believe passionately that the interests of people across the U.K. and in particular the people of Scotland are best served when we work together,” Johnson wrote, citing the vaccine success. “This is Team U.K. in action, and I recommit the United Kingdom government to working with the Scottish government in this cooperative spirit.”

Elsewhere, Labour’s Sadiq Khan was re-elected as mayor of London but only after a tighter than expected contest.

Labour leader Starmer removed his deputy, Angela Rayner, from her role as party chair and election chief after the disastrous results. Starmer promised to take responsibility and that means change is needed to the party’s election machine, one party official explained.

Rayner is likely to be offered another role and will remain as deputy leader. But that may not calm some of the anger from colleagues at the way Starmer has treated her. Rayner’s supporters say she’s a perfect example of the sort of working class, northern English communities that the party needs to reconnect with.

Dangers lurk for Starmer. Former cabinet minister Andy Burnham, who was re-elected as Greater Manchester Mayor with a landslide, warned the leader he must ditch his London-centric focus if Labour is to recover. He said he’d be prepared to stand as a leader “one day” in future, if the party needed him.

Later, when he saw news of that the working-class northern party chair had been fired, Burhnam did not hide his dismay. “I can’t support this,” he said.

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