LONDON — The results of local elections across most of the United Kingdom last week confirmed two things: that the successful rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in the U.K. has helped to inoculate Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson from fallout from various scandals, and that the question of whether there will be another independence referendum in Scotland remains as unanswerable as it was before the vote.
Overall, the results were a good outcome for Johnson’s Conservative Party, as across England the main opposition Labour Party lost its grip on a number of local authorities in areas that had been its heartland. Moreover, the Labour candidate lost a by-election for the parliamentary seat in Hartlepool, a bastion for the party since the mid-1960s, to his Tory rival.
Just ahead of the elections, the Electoral Commission announced it was investigating whether a Tory party donor illegally advanced the party $80,000 to refurbish Johnson’s four-bedroom apartment above 11 Downing Street, next door to his office at number 10. That came on the heels of a leaked quote from the premier — who has a long history of verbal faux pas — that he would rather “let the bodies pile high in their thousands” than order a third pandemic lockdown.
But if either incident angered voters, it didn’t cost his party at the ballot box.
Johnson’s government — as well Scotland’s, led by the Scottish National Party (SNP), and Wales’, where the parliament is Labour-led — fared well, thanks in large part to the smooth and efficient distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, and the resulting ongoing relaxing of lockdown restrictions and the reopening of the economy.
“Those contingent factors clearly are important,” says Tim Bale, a politics professor at Queen Mary University of London.
Local elections in the U.K. are often seen as a chance for voters to register unhappiness with governments and parties, explains Robert Ford, a professor of political science at the University of Manchester. “So it’s rather expressive if voters are rewarding incumbents.” Polls show that the approval rating for the vaccination process is well over 80%, and Ford says he can only think of one or two other times in history when a public policy polled that well.
The results also underscore an ongoing realignment in British politics, Bale says. Areas that were once Labour strongholds are turning Tory blue. Overall, these are regions that have few immigrants and large populations of people with lower levels of education, a large percentage of whom are homeowners. So Conservative policies to restrict immigration and keep taxes low appeal to them, he says.
To be sure, the elections were hardly a rout for the Labour Party, which did well in the southeast and big cities, and in mayoral elections. An extrapolation of the results by John Curtice, a professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, indicates that had last week’s vote been a general election, the Tories would have bested Labour by 7 percentage points — hardly a great outcome, but an improvement on the 12-point shellacking Labour was given by the Conservatives in the 2019 election. Ford also notes that areas that were early in releasing their final tallies over the weekend were largely in Conservative regions, and by the time some of the stronger Labour results trickled in “the narrative had been set.”
For now, it seems unlikely that any of the scandals erupting around Johnson — a new one cropped up this week over questions about who paid for a $21,000 Caribbean vacation Johnson and his partner Carrie Symonds took early this year — will damage the prime minister.
“Results are what matter most in the Conservative Party,” Ford says. “So long as they’re winning, he won’t face any big challenges. It (last week’s elections) continues his reputation as a vote-winner.” Moreover, Bale adds, a sleaze factor has long been priced into Johnson’s appeal to voters. “He was never a paragon of virtue, more the ‘loveable rogue.'”
In Scotland, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon had hoped her party would gain the 65 seats needed to have control over Holyrood, the Scottish parliament, thus giving it the political muscle to strong-arm the Johnson government into approving another independence referendum. In 2014, 55.3% of Scottish voters decided to remain in the union.
But the SNP fell one seat short of a majority in the national parliament. Nevertheless, with the eight seats won by the Scottish Green Party, Holyrood is controlled by two parties in favor of independence. However, union-backing parties argue that they won a slightly greater percentage of total votes cast — 50.4% — an indication that most Scots don’t want to split from the U.K.
“It gives everyone something to point to,” Ford says. Sturgeon wanted her party to win an outright majority, he adds, “and instead it’s a gray area. It’s probably a setback for her.”
Sturgeon, however, is claiming a mandate for another plebiscite. Johnson says he won’t grant it. But the SNP and Greens together have the votes to push through a bill calling for another referendum, and if they do it would pressure Johnson to acquiesce, or risk looking as if he’s denying Scots the right to self-determination, Bale says.
Even if Sturgeon succeeds in scheduling another independence vote, it won’t be soon — probably not until late 2023. Various recent opinion polls in Scotland mirror last week’s election results and currently indicate a slight edge for remain voters.
“It would be too close to call,” Bale says, and Sturgeon may be hoping that strong public antipathy toward Johnson in Scotland will grow if he tries to block a vote, giving the push for independence some momentum in the interim.
But a big gain in public sentiment for independence is no sure thing. And, Ford points out, “without a big lead in the opinion polls it would be a massive gamble” for Sturgeon to schedule another referendum. “Because it might lose.”
More from U.S. News
Conservatives Assert Control in U.K. Local Elections originally appeared on usnews.com