Labour’s setback becomes a crisis as Starmer’s leadership in question

Treatment of Angela Rayner after poor election performance puts judgment in spotlight

Faced with an enhanced pro-independence majority in the Scottish parliament, Boris Johnson's government has dropped its overt threat to block any second referendum. Cabinet office minister Michael Gove rehearsed the new line in Sunday's broadcast round, saying now is not the time to focus on anything other than the coronavirus recovery.

He dodged questions about whether the British government would mount a legal challenge if the Scottish parliament legislates for a fresh independence vote. And he stressed that the prime minister is eager to work with Scotland's first minister Nicola Sturgeon on a common approach to the coronavirus recovery.

Johnson has invited Sturgeon, Welsh first minister Mark Drakeford and Northern Ireland's Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill to what he calls a "summit meeting" to discuss how they can work together "in the coming months and years" to overcome their shared challenges. Sturgeon has promised to focus on the recovery before legislating for an independence referendum but she will do so within the first half of the five-year parliamentary term.

Thursday's elections saw incumbents rewarded in each country in Britain, with the Conservatives gaining council seats and winning the Hartlepool byelection in England, the SNP winning in Scotland and Mark Drakeford's Labour equalling its best-ever result in Wales. In England and Wales, the Conservatives completed their consolidation of the right-wing vote begun in 2019, wiping out Ukip and crushing the successor to Nigel Farage's Brexit Party.

Alienating voters

But the Conservative dominance of England and its success among older white voters in traditionally Labour-voting parts of the northeast and the Midlands could push the party into policy positions and political postures that will further alienate voters in Scotland and Wales.

Johnson has signalled his enthusiasm for pursuing further culture wars over Britain’s colonial past, race relations and how to deal with historic crimes committed by former soldiers. And his attempts to circumvent the administrations in Edinburgh and Cardiff by funding UK-badged projects in Scotland and Wales directly from London are unpopular among those who cherish devolution as well as advocates for independence.

Labour leader Keir Starmer turned a setback into a crisis over the weekend when he sought to scapegoat deputy leader Angela Rayner for the party's losses in England. He sacked her from her role as party chair and campaign and campaign co-ordinator on Saturday, just as some of Labour's best results were coming through.

The party lost the Hartlepool byelection by a wide margin, fared badly in other former industrial strongholds and failed to capture the mayoralties of Tees Valley and the West Midlands from the Conservatives. But it held mayoralties elsewhere, including in London and Greater Manchester and gained the west of England from the Tories, as well as making gains in councils in the south of England.

Backlash

There is no evidence that Rayner was the main culprit for Labour’s losses and even if she was, Starmer cannot sack her from her more important position of deputy leader, which is elected by the party membership. After a ferocious backlash, Labour briefed on Sunday that Rayner was in fact being promoted to a senior frontbench role as Starmer scrambled to reshuffle his shadow cabinet a day earlier than planned.

On Friday morning, after the worst of Labour’s results came in, few in the party suggested that Starmer’s leadership was in question. By Sunday it was, along with his judgment.

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