Boris Johnson has made clear he would reject calls for a second Scottish independence referendum if Nicola Sturgeon secured an SNP majority at Holyrood.
In an interview with The Telegraph, the Prime Minister said: “I think a referendum in the current context is irresponsible and reckless.”
The comments set up a political battle over the future of the UK that will loom large for the rest of the year.
Ms Sturgeon, the SNP leader, who is set to be returned as Scottish First Minister in the Holyrood elections, said on Friday that she was prepared to push for a second referendum “when the time is right”.
It followed Labour suffering a historic by-election defeat in Hartlepool, with a Tory MP elected in the town for the first time since 1964.
Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, admitted his party had “lost the trust of the working people” and said the defeat of a traditionally solid Labour seat was “bitterly disappointing”.
Khalid Mahmood quit as Labour’s shadow defence minister, accusing the party of having ceded to a “London-based bourgeoisie” and “brigades of woke social media warriors”.
The political backlash showed little sign of slowing on Friday night, with criticism from both Labour moderates and the Left leading to speculation that a shadow cabinet reshuffle may be imminent.
In a swipe at his successor, Jeremy Corbyn, who remains suspended from the party, accused Sir Keir of “offering nothing” to voters.
The full results from “Super Thursday”, a day of elections for councils, mayors, police commissioners, the Scottish and Welsh parliaments and one MP, are still emerging.
But signs on Friday night suggested a strong showing in England for the Conservatives, with the Tories making a net gain of seven local authorities and 155 council seats, while Labour was down 142 seats with a net loss of four authorities. Results were reported from 64 out of 143 councils.
In Hartlepool, Jill Mortimer, the Tory candidate, won the seat by 15,529 votes to Labour’s 8,589, a majority of almost 7,000 votes which eclipsed the expectations of insiders in both parties. The seat had been held by Labour since its creation in February 1974.
Ms Sturgeon was last night heading for a strong performance in the Holyrood election – although doubts remained over whether she would secure a majority – with the Scottish Tories losing two of the seven constituencies they won in the 2016 election. The SNP had won 38 out of 46 constituency seats declared last night.
The First Minister had argued that an SNP majority would give the party a mandate for a second independence referendum. The party won a majority in 2011, leading to the 2014 independence referendum.
However, asked during a visit to Hartlepool on Friday if a Nationalist majority meant there was a mandate for another vote, Mr Johnson told The Telegraph: “I think that count is still taking place and we’ll have to see what happens. I listened to the Scottish election carefully.
“My impression was that they [the SNP] moved away from the idea of a referendum, and I think very wisely.
“Because I don’t think this is anything like the time to have more constitutional wrangling, to be talking about ripping our country apart, when actually people want to heal our economy and bounce forward together. That’s what people want.”
Asked about claims he had privately said he would never agree to a second referendum, Mr Johnson said: “I think a referendum in the current context is irresponsible and reckless. Let me leave it at that.”
Pushed on what he would do if Ms Sturgeon attempted to hold a referendum unilaterally, without permission from Westminster, Mr Johnson said: “Well, as I say, I think that there’s no case now for such a thing … I don’t think it’s what the times call for at all.”
Ms Sturgeon, who was re-elected as an MSP representing Glasgow, indicated she would pursue a second referendum if she achieved a majority.
Ms Sturgeon said: “If that is indeed the outcome of this election, I pledge today to get back to work immediately to continue to steer the country through the crisis of Covid, to continue to lead this country into recovery from Covid.
“And then, when the time is right, to offer this country the choice of a better future.”
Mr Johnson also argued that the Government’s response to the pandemic showed the strength of the UK remaining unified.
He said: “I think the merits of the Union have been amply demonstrated throughout the pandemic. The work of the armed services in bringing people from remote places in our country – Scottish islands – to get medical help. The furlough scheme deployed through the massive firepower of the UK Treasury. I think there’s been an eloquent testimonial during the pandemic to the power of the Union.”
After another victory, what next for the premier who can’t stop winning?
Two Boris Johnsons bestrode the Hartlepool marina on Friday afternoon. One was the Prime Minister, surrounded by a scrum of reporters and snappers as he took a by-election victory lap. The other, a 30ft inflatable version, had similar clothes and thumbs raised.
“Look at this guy," said the real Mr Johnson as he approached. “I think he looks like Hastings from Line of Duty.” He moved into position knowingly as cameras clicked. Then the inflatable began to topple.
“Look out Boris!” shouted some of the locals who had gathered to watch. “He’s coming down!” The Prime Minister cut a hasty retreat. It was a brief comic moment, a politician playing with the press to the chuckles of onlookers, but it hinted at the currents which created the Hartlepool hammering delivered to Labour this week.
There is something in Mr Johnson’s unique political appeal that helped unlock a County Durham town the Tories have not held since Beatlemania was gripping the country in 1964. Was it that curious familiarity the Prime Minister is able to establish with voters, who know him by his first name? Or Brexit and the “levelling up agenda”? Or the Covid-19 vaccine success?
Are the tectonic plates of British politics really changing, and if so, what must Mr Johnson do to ensure they keep moving his way all the way to the 2024 election? After his Hartlepool walkabout, the Prime Minister sat down with The Telegraph in the Jacksons Wharf pub overlooking the marina to unpack a consequential election week.
Keeping new voters
Mr Johnson names delivering Brexit, the Covid-19 vaccines rollout triumph, taking on the European Super League, and the Tory candidate Jill Mortimer as factors in the by-election win. Looking forward, though, how do the Tories lock in their newfound voters?
The uncertainty of the economic recovery to come can be felt in Hartlepool and scores of similar towns across the UK. One employment issue that remains unclear is when the Government will lift its pandemic guidance which urges people to work from home if they can.
Does Mr Johnson want to see workers allowed back in offices after the final stage of his reopening roadmap for England on June 21? His responses suggest so.
“If their work requires them to go back to the office then they should go back to the office. But we’re not at that stage yet,” Mr Johnson said. “I’m hopeful on that but I’m not being categorical about it at this stage," he added, stressing that the final decisions must wait on the data.
The remarks suggest that, despite Government scientists pushing for hybrid working to become permanent, Mr Johnson is hoping to allow a return to office life this summer. The Prime Minister remains optimistic that after the pandemic people will still want to see each other in person, referring to what he has dubbed "Johnson’s transport paradox".
He explained: “The paradox is that the more people can communicate remotely and the more contacts they can perform electronically – whether by Zoom or mobile of whatever – the more reasons they find to meet face-to-face.
“Human beings want to meet together. They just do. I think that not only will the economy bounce back but that the bustle, the excitement, the pace of life in our towns, in our great cities will be restored and things will come back.”
Delivering levelling up
Mr Johnson sees his “levelling-up” agenda – tackling geographical inequality – as central to the Hartlepool victory as well as other ‘Red Wall’ Labour northern heartland seats he flipped in the 2019 election. As a term it has been criticised as ill-defined.
A white paper detailing proposals to achieve it is coming, it was announced this week, but the election was 18 months ago now. Mr Johnson says voters understand what it means. “Although it sounds like a fairly abstract phrase, they get it, they see what we’re trying to do,” he said.
“They see it’s not only morally and socially the right thing to do, it’s economically the right thing to do. There is massive, massive potential everywhere in the country. There is genius, there is talent everywhere in the country, there is imagination, there is enthusiasm, but opportunity is not so evenly distributed.”
Some commentators see the political shifts occurring under Johnson’s leadership as akin to Margaret Thatcher, a Tory prime minister who reshaped the electoral landscape for decades. He waves away the comparison and is similarly reluctant to embrace suggestions the Tories could become the party of the working class, despite polls suggesting they edge Labour among that cohort.
Instead he offers: “I think that what is happening is that people are recognising that the Conservative Party is the party of aspiration, of opportunity.”
Covid and Scotland
Two more immediate political challenges face the Prime Minister in the coming months: striking the right balance between safety and economic resurgence as the pandemic eases, and thwarting the prospect of a second Scottish independence referendum.
On the first, big unknowns remain. The Prime Minister sidesteps a question about whether people with jabs will be allowed to act under different rules from the non-vaccinated, despite such a system already being up and running in America.
So too a question about whether the furlough scheme should be wound up earlier than the autumn, given its cost to the economy and the low Covid-19 case numbers. Both questions are met with a promise to stick to the “cautious but irreversible” reopening roadmap.
But on the Covid-19 vaccine passports, there is news. For the first time the Prime Minister states that he does not want to force pubs to check people’s Covid-19 status when they enter, an outcome hospitality industry associations have been seeking.
“I think that’s unlikely, to be frank,” Mr Johnson said at first about whether Covid-19 status checks for pubs will be mandated, before adding a categorical “no” when asked if that was his intention.
The challenge of countering the SNP north of the border offers a less straightforward path. Mr Johnson is reluctant at first to discuss the possibility of Indyref2, stressing the results from the Scottish Parliament elections were still emerging.
But pushed, he makes clear his opposition. “I think a referendum in the current context is irresponsible and reckless,” he said, indicating no approval will be granted any time soon. He also takes a subtle swipe at Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP leader and Scottish First Minister, who played down the chances of immediately seeking a second referendum in the weeks before Thursday’s vote.
“I listened to the Scottish election carefully. My impression was that they [the SNP] moved away from the idea of a referendum and I think very wisely,” he said.
Downing Street controversies
Life has not all been rosy at the heart of Downing Street of late, if the spate of controversies splashed over newspaper front pages in recent weeks is any indication. The Prime Minister has little discussed the rows in public appearances. Would he be any more forthcoming when probed by The Telegraph, the paper he made his journalistic name at?
What does he think Dominic Cummings – his former adviser publicly accused of leaking damaging information by Number 10 sources – is really up to?
“I think this election is a resounding instruction to the people of this country to focus on the things that matter to them. I think that’s the best answer I can give,” Mr Johnson said. Does he think his old ally has a vendetta campaign? A near identically worded reply is given.
So the negative headlines did not influence voters? Again, the same response. Two questions about the Downing Street flat refurbishment: ‘why not just get the facts out there?’ and ‘did Tory donations help cover the funding?’ both elicit a similar answer. The Prime Minister delivered the responses good-naturedly, knowing he has a position from which he will not budge.
What about those (like the SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford) who say he has an issue with the truth? “I think I’m punctilious to a fault,” Mr Johnson replied with a smile. "I’m a stickler, like all Telegraph journalists.”
There is clarity on one issue, however. David Cameron. The former prime minister, deposed after a Brexit vote Mr Johnson helped secure, has been wrapped up in a lobbying saga over his work for the supply finance company Greensill Capital.
Has the Prime Minister spoken to Mr Cameron this year? “I’d have to check but I don’t think so,” Mr Johnson said. Does he not consult his predecessor for prime ministerial advice? “No, not much.” And no discussions about Greensill? “No, no, no, Definitely not,” Mr Johnson said.
Before time runs out there is time to seek news on one final topic, namely a new Royal Yacht Britannia. The Telegraph has reported a new boat bearing Prince Phillip’s name is on the way. Can the Prime Minister say any more? He pauses, cogs whirring.
“Like the giant rat of Sumatra, it’s one of those things for which the world is not quite yet ready,” Mr Johnson replied, an apparent reference to a Sherlock Holmes mystery.
“So you’ll have to contain your impatience.”