England at the weekend gave Boris Johnson an enthusiastic electoral pat on the back in the local elections that should see off any talk of threats to his prime ministerial position for a few months at least. The successful roll out of vaccinations appears to have put paid to hopes in Labour of a usual mid-term boost, and the loss of hundreds of council seats and a key by-election in Hartlepool has intensified criticism of leader Keir Starmer. He accepted full responsibility for the party's parlous condition and then, somewhat contradicting himself, fired its campaign director and party chair Angela Rayner.
But the elections also told another story in Scotland, Wales, and some of the main cities of England where Labour held on – alienation from Westminster and London-centric politics saw the related causes of independence and enhanced devolution take significant strides forward. The securing by the Scottish National Party and their Green allies of a comfortable assembly majority for independence – on a record turnout of 64 per cent – makes the democratic case for a referendum unanswerable and sets the scene for a post-covid constitutional confrontation between Holyrood and Westminster.
Johnson attempted unconvincingly to pre-empt the SNP victory by denouncing calls for another referendum as "irresponsible and reckless" and by convening a summit to reinvigorate a supposedly collective response to the pandemic. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, on the back of a fourth successive SNP Holyrood election win, will bide her time, but come the spring of next year will proceed with legislation for a poll, defying London to block it.
In Wales First Minister Mark Drakeford led Labour to a comfortable return on the back of a campaign which focussed on the party's success on the pandemic and the need to strengthen devolution. In Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham was selling the same bill of goods of successful local Labour administration and urging Starmer to embrace devolution wholeheartedly. Labour wins in Salford, Liverpool, and London, where Sadiq Khan was returned, echoed the point. The message to Starmer was straightforward from left and right – a policyless Labour will not be revived simply around the slogan "We are not the Tories".