General election 2019: Two landslide wins reveal a deeply divided UK
For a moment, Nicola Sturgeon seemed lost in her own excitement. Fists clenched, pumping her arms, the First Minister celebrated the result like a football fan watching a winning goal, spinning around to cheer as the result was announced. She shouted, she cheered, she bounced up and down.
The whole thing lasted about 10 seconds before the SNP leader caught herself, took a moment to regain her composure and offered her consolation to Jo Swinson, the Lib Dem leader, who had just lost her seat to 27-year-old SNP activist Amy Callaghan by 149 votes.
Was it ungracious to celebrate, as several Lib Dems later claimed? Maybe. But perhaps she was just pleased at another SNP gain, in a night which brought the party 12 new seats. In fact, it wasn’t totally clear whether she knew the cameras were rolling. But in any case, the SNP leader was quick to present a conciliatory face to the former MP. “I understand more than most, the pressures and the challenges of leadership and to lose her seat tonight when she’s led her party through this campaign will be a bitter blow for her,” she said.
For her part, Swinson went out fighting, putting her defeat down to a “wave of nationalism” sweeping “both sides of the border”.
“It is clear that the kind of future desired by the majority in Scotland is different to that chosen by the rest of the UK. Scotland has rejected Boris Johnson and the Tories and, yet again, we have said no to Brexit”
She said: “Let me say now, for millions of people in our country these results will bring dread and dismay and people are looking for hope. I still believe that we as a country can be warm and generous, inclusive and open, and that by working together with our nearest neighbours we can achieve so much more.”
In truth, during the campaign, the seat had looked a stretch for the SNP. Scotland had been littered with tiny majorities, but this had not been one of them. Instead, Callaghan overturned a majority of more than 5,000 to take the constituency from Swinson and it was a bitter blow for the Lib Dems, with the party leader beginning the contest by pitching herself as a future PM and ending it by being thrown out of the Commons.
This was meant to have been an election about Brexit – much to Jeremy Corbyn’s evident frustration – yet the most ardently pro-EU party had a terrible night, with gains countered by other losses and the party contriving to perform even worse than it did in the disastrous 2017 vote.
The result was shocking, but then so was much of the night, with the Lib Dems winning North East Fife from Stephen Gethins and suspended SNP candidate Neale Hanvey taking Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath from Labour’s shadow Scotland Secretary Leslie Laird, despite the FM calling on her party’s activists to pull their support.
The only future for Scotland, and for Scottish Labour, will be found in bringing together our communities on the basis of the overwhelming common interest that working people have – whether they are Yes or No, Leave or Remain”
And yes, many had expected a Tory victory, but not like this. Not by this sort of margin. This was the stuff of Labour’s deepest nightmares.
By the time the exit polls arrived – so accurate now, the rest of the night felt closer to a confirmation than a surprise – Labour’s worst fears were realised. A Tory landslide of 365 seats brought a 47-seat majority for Boris Johnson’s new government and a mandate for his Brexit plans.
The result was even worse for Labour than the Lib Dems, with the party continuing its apparent mission to redefine the concept of failure, this time by losing 59 seats in its confrontation with one of the most chaotic and ineffectual Conservative governments in decades.
A litany of question marks over Johnson’s character – encompassing allegations of racism, homophobia and sexism, alongside a refusal to face the media and a predilection for open, barefaced lies – were combined with the Prime Minister’s utterly dismal political record. Trying and failing to prorogue parliament. Scotland’s highest court finding he had provided unlawful advice to the Queen. Trying to force a no-deal Brexit – despite the warnings over the potentially devastating impact on people’s lives – and failing at that too. But still voters couldn’t bring themselves to back Labour.
Insiders claim Corbyn had given up hope by the end of the campaign, and by the time the results emerged – the party took 203 constituencies in total – he certainly looked out of ideas. Confirming he will not lead the party into any future general-election campaign, he said he would continue to lead the party during a “period of reflection” as Labour decides the direction it should take next.
Arguing that Brexit had “overridden so much of a normal political debate”, Corbyn defended his manifesto, while hitting out at the media coverage his party had received.
The Labour leader said: “I’m proud in parliament and outside that we will forever continue the cause for socialism, for social justice and for a society based on the needs of all rather than the greed of a few.
“That is what makes our party what it is and I’m very proud of the achievements of our party and the development of its manifesto and its ideas.
“I tell you what, those ideas and those principles are eternal and they will be there for all time.”
Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard took rather longer to provide his own analysis, but when he did, in the aftermath of the party being reduced to one MP north of the border, after losing six, the line was pretty similar. He said: “The voters have spoken and we must listen. Constitutional issues have played a major role in our defeat. It is clear that we must do more to win back the trust of people on both sides of the Brexit and Scottish independence debates.
“But more importantly, we must bring people together. The only future for Scotland, and for Scottish Labour, will be found in bringing together our communities on the basis of the overwhelming common interest that working people have – whether they are Yes or No, Leave or Remain.”
Labour will have time for a period of introspection, with the party likely to embark on an inquest into the relative influences of Corbyn’s leadership, the party’s policies and its stance on the EU and Scottish independence, while for Johnson, the business of government is just beginning.
Speaking the day after the vote, the PM attempted to present a healing message to a UK that appears more divided than at any point in modern history, yet his underlying mission was clear. “No ifs, no buts, no maybes – leaving the European Union as one United Kingdom, taking back control of our laws, borders, money, our trade, immigration system, delivering on the democratic mandate of the people.”
And so the nations of the UK are, yet again, set on a collision course, with Johnson’s triumph combining with an SNP landslide north of the border to create serious questions over the future of the union.
As Sturgeon put it, speaking the day after the vote: “Last night the SNP won an incredible 80 per cent of seats in Scotland – an overwhelming endorsement of our campaign and message.
“It is clear that the kind of future desired by the majority in Scotland is different to that chosen by the rest of the UK. Scotland has rejected Boris Johnson and the Tories and, yet again, we have said no to Brexit.”
This was more or less what you’d expect from the SNP leader. But, more significantly, she also used the platform to outline her plans moving forward, with the FM confirming she would seek the powers to hold an independence referendum before the end of the year.
She said: “I acknowledge that not absolutely everyone who voted SNP yesterday is ready to support independence. But the point of unity that I do believe exists is this. Whether or not Scotland becomes an independent country must be a matter for the people who live here – and for all of us, wherever we come from. It is not a decision for any Westminster Prime Minister – and certainly not for one who suffered a crushing defeat in Scotland last night.
“The Tories fought the campaign in Scotland on a single issue. They spoke about nothing else. They bombarded people in Scotland with the same relentless message, day after day and night after night. They said a vote for them was a vote to deny people in Scotland the right to decide our own future.
“They said it was a vote to reject an independence referendum. Well, yesterday, the people of Scotland rejected the Tories instead. This stunning election win last night for the SNP renews, reinforces and strengthens the mandate we have from previous elections to offer the people of Scotland a choice over their future.”
The First Minister and Prime Minister then spoke over the phone later that day, with Downing Street saying Johnson had “reiterated his unwavering commitment” to the union, and Michael Gove appearing on The Andrew Marr Show to assert “we are not going to have an independence referendum in Scotland”.
Yet clearly that will not be the end of the matter, and watching the standoff between Bute House and Downing Street, it’s hard to escape the feeling the future of the union is more precarious than ever. One election, two landslide wins, and a constitutional crisis in which no one is willing to back down.