Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservatives were bidding Friday for an upset victory in a northern industrial seat after Britain held its first major electoral test since Brexit and the coronavirus crisis.
The “Super Thursday” regional and local elections could reshape the UK as pro-independence forces in Scotland bid to break away. Results for the Scottish Parliament are due on Saturday.
First up, after 0400 GMT Friday, is expected to be the result from the UK parliamentary seat of Hartlepool, a rust-belt port deep in the opposition Labour party’s heartland of northeast England.
The strongly pro-Brexit constituency has never voted Conservative since its creation in 1974. The by-election was called alongside the local polls after its Labour incumbent quit over allegations of sexual harassment.
One of the last opinion surveys before Thursday gave Johnson’s ruling party a double-digit lead in the seat, which if confirmed would represent a serious blow to Labour leader Keir Starmer ahead of the next general election due in 2024.
It would come despite recent attacks by Starmer on Johnson’s personal integrity, and suggest the prime minister has enjoyed a “vaccine bounce” even while Britain has suffered one of the world’s worst death tolls from Covid-19.
Underlining Hartlepool’s importance in the national battle, both leaders paid repeat campaign visits there, and the Conservatives were also banking on a strong showing in mayoral races for the English regions of Tees Valley and the West Midlands.
– ‘Mountain to climb’ –
Johnson, after shrugging off questions about who paid initially for costly renovations to his Downing Street flat, has also campaigned on his record as the leader who finally “got Brexit done” following Britain’s full withdrawal from the European Union this year.
“It’s the Conservatives who are delivering on your priorities, better taxpayer value, other parties (are) just playing political games,” he said in a Twitter video clip on Thursday.
Retaining Hartlepool is pivotal for Starmer after the Conservatives grabbed a string of seats across Labour’s so-called “Red Wall” heartland in northern England at the last general election in December 2019, when Brexit was the dominant issue.
Some 250 jobs at the city’s Liberty Steel plant are at risk after the collapse of finance firm Greensill Capital, whose failure has dragged in former prime minister David Cameron and drawn Labour accusations of Tory “sleaze”.
But Starmer has played down expectations for Labour, stressing “I never thought we would climb the mountain we have to climb in just one year”.
“We’ve got to rebuild into the next general election — that is the task in hand,” he said, after hard-left predecessor Jeremy Corbyn led Labour in 2019 to its worst election drubbing since 1935.
Voting also took place Thursday for local councils in England, regional mayors including in London, and for the devolved assemblies in Wales and Scotland.
In Edinburgh, the Scottish National Party (SNP) is seeking a pro-independence majority to put pressure on 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, appealing for turnout as she campaigns to hold a second plebiscite once the pandemic subsides.