Granting a second independence referendum in Scotland would be “irresponsible”, according to the Environment Secretary, as counting got under way again to determine whether the SNP has won a majority in Holyrood.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has vowed to plough ahead with plans for a follow-up border poll as her party’s chances of taking more than 65 seats in the Scottish Parliament looked likely to go down to the wire as counting continued on Saturday.
With the SNP leader’s strategy putting her on a collision course with the Prime Minister, who has insisted he will not support an “irresponsible” referendum, senior minister George Eustice said it is the wrong time to be considering another plebiscite.
“We think this is a complete distraction,” Mr Eustice told Times Radio.
“It would be irresponsible to have another divisive referendum and another bout of constitutional debate at a time when we are charting our way out of this pandemic and when we’ve got to really focus on economic recovery.
“We think it’s completely the wrong thing to be doing.
“We had a referendum just a little over five years ago and that settled the issue.”
His comments come after Boris Johnson told the Daily Telegraph that another referendum would be “irresponsible and reckless” in the “current context” as Britain emerges from the coronavirus crisis.
The Environment Secretary looked to shift the conversation away from there being a legal clash between No 10 and the SNP over the issue, arguing such talk was “getting ahead of ourselves” with results still pending.
But Scotland’s Deputy First Minister, John Swinney, said he is “very confident” that Holyrood will emerge from the Super Thursday elections with a pro-independence majority, even if the SNP falls short of winning more than 65 seats.
Currently, 71 of the 73 constituency results in Scotland have been declared, with the SNP winning 60 seats, the Liberal Democrats five, the Conservatives three and Labour two.
The SNP picked up key seats in Edinburgh Central, Ayr and East Lothian, and held on to Aberdeenshire East, which was the first result to be announced on Saturday, against a Tory challenge.
But under Holyrood’s proportional representation system, those successes could see it lose out on the regional list which make up the remaining 56 seats.
Mr Swinney told the BBC: “I think what matters on the question you asked me about, a mandate for a referendum, is what is the position of those who are elected to the Parliament and will there be an overall majority of members elected committed to the hosting of an independence referendum, and I’m very confident that will be the case.”
In England, the post-mortem into Labour’s poor showing at the polls continued as a senior party figure said it is evident from the Hartlepool by-election defeat and local election losses that voters “do not see Labour as answering” their concerns.
As of Saturday afternoon, with results in from 120 of 143 English councils, the Tories had a net gain of 11 authorities and more than 270 seats, while Labour had a net loss of five councils and more than 200 seats.
Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said there will be a policy review to “make sure… our party is connected in communities up and down the country”.
He said it will be up to leader Sir Keir Starmer – who called the results “bitterly disappointing” – whether to embark on a reshuffle of his top team, but there is a “wider, more fundamental issue” at play for the party than personnel changes.
After a bruising Friday, there was better news for Labour during the weekend’s mayoral counts as Steve Rotheram comfortably secured a second term as Liverpool City Region Mayor with 58% of first preference votes.
A thumping win for Andy Burnham, who took 67% of the vote in Greater Manchester, and a surprise win in the West of England mayoral race for Dan Norris brought further joy to the Opposition party on Saturday.
Mr Burnham, who snared a second term in office, has been installed as the bookmakers’ favourite to replace Sir Keir as the next Labour leader, even though he is not in the Commons.
The former health secretary did not entirely bat away suggestions that he still harbours leadership ambitions, telling Sky News: “In the distant future, if the party were ever to feel it needed me, well, I’m here and they should get in touch.”
In London’s mayoral contest, Labour’s Sadiq Khan went into Saturday with a lead of 24,267 first preference votes over Tory rival Shaun Bailey after the first seven constituencies declared, a closer contest than many had predicted.
For the Tories, Andy Street completed the Tory “hat-trick” of successes by retaining the mayoralty in the West Midlands, a result that followed Jill Mortimer’s Hartlepool victory and Ben Houchen’s stunning result which saw him take 73% of the vote in Tees Valley.
In Wales – as in Scotland and England – the party in power was rewarded by the voters.
Mark Drakeford’s Welsh Labour avoided the kind of electoral drubbing Sir Keir endured on Friday, holding on to its “red wall” seats in the north.
With the final declarations made on Saturday, Labour ended with exactly half the 60 seats in the Senedd – one short of an overall majority – equalling its best ever results.
Results saw Labour win 30 seats, the Tories 16, Plaid Cymru 13 and the Liberal Democrats one.
First Minister Mr Drakeford, who extended the majority for his Cardiff West seat by more than 10,000 votes, vowed to be “radical” and “ambitious” in government.