Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Friday welcomed early election results in Britain’s first major vote since Brexit and the pandemic, including a stunning by-election victory for his Conservative party in an opposition Labour stronghold.
The “Super Thursday” local and regional contests could reshape the UK as pro-independence forces in Scotland, where voting for the devolved parliament was also held, bid to break away.
Results in Scotland are due on Saturday.
But in the first results from England on Friday, the Conservatives were performing strongly in various regions and won by a landslide in the northeast parliamentary seat of Hartlepool, in a bitter blow for Labour and its leader Keir Starmer.
The rust-belt town constituency, which is deep in traditional Labour heartlands and has never voted Conservative since its creation in 1974, saw a 16 percent swing to the Tories.
“It’s a very encouraging set of results so far,” Johnson told reporters.
“I think that’s really because we have been focusing, as a government, on our priorities, the people’s priorities, and bouncing back from the pandemic as much as we can.”
Hartlepool’s newly-elected Tory MP Jill Mortimer called her win “truly historic” and accused Labour of taking its people “for granted for too long.”
The result continues the trend from the last 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.
– ‘Shattering’ –
The vote in strongly pro-Brexit Hartlepool, held alongside local elections across much of the country, came about after its Labour incumbent quit over sexual harassment allegations.
In 2019 — Labour’s worst election result since 1935, under the hard-left leadership of Jeremy Corbyn — around a quarter of Hartlepool’s electorate opted for the upstart Brexit Party.
Now, with Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union complete and that party rebranded, those voters appeared to flock to the Conservatives.
The result will ratchet up the pressure on Starmer, elected leader a year ago promising to rebuild the party and reconnect with its traditional voters.
Senior party MP Steve Reed called the result “shattering”.
“It tells us that the pace of change in the Labour Party has not been fast enough,” he told the BBC.
Starmer had already played down expectations, stressing that rebuilding Labour would take more than a year.
– ‘Popular’ PM –
In Hartlepool, a giant inflatable Johnson appeared outside the building where the vote count was taking place. The balloon prime minister, complete with trademark scruffy blond hair, gave two thumbs up.
The outcome suggests he continues to enjoy popularity in former Labour strongholds and has benefitted from Britain’s successful vaccine rollout, despite the country also suffering one of the world’s worst Covid-19 death tolls.
Johnson, who has been dogged in recent weeks by several scandals, has campaigned on his record of finally having “got Brexit done”. He has also touted government economic support during the pandemic and the vaccine drive.
Results of voting for local councils in England, regional mayors including in London, and for the devolved assemblies in Wales and Scotland — expected later Friday and over the weekend — will give a broader picture of his support.
Initial results showed his Conservatives performing strongly beyond Hartlepool in the northeast, as well as in central and southeast England.
They suggest Starmer faces an increasingly daunting task to unseat Johnson at the next general election due in 2024.
“The structural realignment of party support is clearly going to be the dominant story of the elections in England,” said University of Southampton politics professor Will Jennings.
He noted the “feel-good factor” of the vaccine rollout may have helped maintain the recent shifts towards Conservatives.
– ‘Different directions’ –
But Conservative celebrations could be tempered by events in Scotland.
The Scottish National Party (SNP) is seeking a pro-independence majority to pressure Johnson to permit another referendum on splitting from the UK, after most Scots voted in 2014 to stay in.
“It really is on a knife edge,” SNP leader and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted Thursday.
Political pundits predicted a strong SNP showing alongside the Conservative gains in England could intensify calls for another poll.
“It entrenches the sense that the two nations are moving in very different directions. That can only fuel demand for independence,” said ITV News’ UK editor Paul Brand.