Boris Johnson invites devolved UK leaders to summit in bid to boost union

Cabinet minister suggests the SNP would be taken to court if it called a referendum on Scottish independence

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks, with an inflatable figure depicting him in the background, at Jacksons Wharf Marina in Hartlepool following local elections, Britain, May 7, 2021. REUTERS/Lee Smith     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Boris Johnson has called for a summit of the UK’s home nations following the most important local elections in decades

The UK Prime Minister is attempting to hold the union together after the Scottish Nationalist Party secured a fourth consecutive term in power but failed to win an outright majority.

The results from Thursday's elections showed that those in power experienced the biggest victories, with the Conservatives winning handsomely in England, the opposition Labour Party holding on to the Welsh Assembly and the SNP securing victory in Scotland. In London, Sadiq Khan won a second term as mayor with a slightly reduced popular vote.

On the back of taking the formerly "safe" Labour seat of Hartlepool and securing dominance in England's local councils, Mr Johnson was given a further boost when then the SNP failed by just one seat to secure an overall majority. That would have given Nicola Sturgeon's party a clear mandate to hold another independence referendum after its failure to break away from the UK in the 2014 vote.

However, with the pro-independence Greens winning eight seats, Ms Sturgeon believes she has the right to call a poll anyway, and warned Mr Johnson "not to pick a fight" over a referendum. She also claimed that a new poll was "the will of the country", although analysis showed that pro-union parties won more than 50 per cent of the constituency vote.

Ms Sturgeon's decision could lead to a constitutional crisis ending in the Supreme Court after the UK government stated it would not endorse a referendum. Under British law, only the Westminster Parliament has the right to call a legally enforceable referendum.

Cabinet Secretary Michael Gove enforced the point, indicating that the government would take the SNP to court if it called a referendum.

“I congratulate Nicola on her success, but she didn't secure a majority,” he told the BBC. He added that Scotland would only be allowed to leave the UK “through a legal referendum”, insisting that the priority was “recovery from the pandemic”.

In a bid to head off the impending political conflict, Mr Johnson wrote to Ms Sturgeon and Labour’s Mark Drakeford, the Welsh first minister, inviting them to a summit, saying Britain needed the “spirit of unity and co-operation” to concentrate on repairing the economy.

Facing humiliating results in England, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer sacked his deputy Angela Rayner as chairwoman and campaigns co-ordinator.

There was some better news for Labour when it emerged it had retained the mayoralties of London, Liverpool and Greater Manchester and taken the West of England mayoralty from the Conservatives.

Labour in Wales secured 30 of the 60 Welsh Assembly seats, although the Conservatives moved into second place, winning 16 seats to the nationalist Plaid Cymru’s 13.

But it remains clear that if the Labour leader is to have any chance of securing power his party needs to change, but how it might change is open to debate.

With the Tories continuing to turn the Labour “red wall” of seats blue in the north of England some political commentators have suggested that Mr Johnson can now contemplate a decade in power.

Riding on the success of Britain’s successful Covid-19 vaccination programme, Mr Johnson has capitalised on what much of the electorate view as his competent handling of the crisis. The election wins, which also saw Labour lose overall control of Durham council for the first time since 1925, pushed the prime minister’s issues over Downing Street renovations and other difficulties into the background.

With two London mayor victories, winning the Brexit referendum and securing a massive majority in the 2019 General Election, it is clear that despite various controversies the British electorate, give or take a few Scots, very much approves of Mr Johnson’s leadership style.

With Brexit done, Covid largely subdued and personal difficulties deflected, the prime minister can now contemplate the coming period with considerable optimism.