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'It's the will of the country': Nicola Sturgeon warns Boris Johnson not to block independence vote

The situation in Scotland so far

Nicola Sturgeon warned Boris Johnson not to stand in the way of a new Scottish independence referendum tonight, saying it was the 'will of the people'.

The First Minister lashed out at Mr Johnson and 'right-wing Brexit-obsessed Tory governments' in Westminster as the SNP won the Scottish Parliament election.

Ms Sturgeon's party is far and away the largest in Holyrood, but it appears to have fallen just short of an overall majority, in a blow to her separatist ambitions.      

The Tories held Aberdeenshire West by more than 3,000 ballots thanks to tactical unionist voting to make it all-but impossible for the SNP to wrestle overall control, leaving them needing a coalition with the Greens.

In a fiery victory speech tonight in Glasgow, Ms Sturgeon said that the Scottish electorate had 'voted to give pro-independence parties a majority in the Scottish Parliament'. 

'Usually - and by the normal standards of democracy - parties are expected to deliver on the commitments they make in elections, not face attempts to block them from doing so,' she said.

'Given the outcome of this election, there is simply no democratic justification whatsoever for Boris Johnson or anyone else seeking to block the right of the people of Scotland to choose our future.'

'If there is such an attempt it will demonstrate conclusively that the UK is not a partnership of equals and that Westminster no longer sees the UK as a voluntary union of nations.'

'That in itself would be a very powerful argument for Scotland becoming an independent country.' 

Any attempt by Scottish politicians to unilaterally try to hold a referendum would lead to a Supreme Court battle between Holyrood and Westminster. 

Mr Johnson last night insisted he would not back the 'irresponsible' move that could break up the union. 

Ms Sturgeon was hoping to hit or pass the required 65-seat mark to give her a stronger mandate to hold a repeat of the 2014 referendum against the wishes of Boris Johnson's Westminster Government.   But election expert Professor Sir John Curtice this afternoon predicted that the Aberdeen vote would leave the SNP two short on 63.  

Conservative Alexander Burnett held on to the seat with 19,709 votes, increasing his majority there and defeating Fergus Mutch, who polled 16,319 for the SNP. 

It came as:

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon leaving home today ahead of the second day of Scottish parliament vote counting.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson at Jacksons Wharf in Hartlepool, County Durham, yesterday following MP Jill Mortimer's victory

With 49 of the 73 constituency results declared in Scotland by this morning, the Scottish National Party had 40 seats, Liberal Democrats four, Conservatives three and Labour two. The SNP needs 65 seats for an outright victory in Scotland

Alex Salmond admits defeat for Alba party

Former SNP first minister Alex Salmond said the votes his Alba Party has received are likely not enough to win them any Holyrood seats.

He launched the breakaway party less than two months ago as the final stage of his bitter spat with successor Nicola Sturgeon.

He had hopes of forming a 'super majority' with the SNP to immediately begin a Scottish breakaway from the UK. 

But this afternoon he conceded that his party was not going to get a seat, and he congratulated Ms Sturgeon  'on her victory'. 

'It is now Nicola's responsibility to carry forward the independence argument and she now has to answer the questions of how you proceed with obduracy from Westminster,' he said.

'Now I think Alba brought forward a number of ways to do it and we pointed the way. I wish Nicola luck in getting that forward and Alba will be there urging things on.

'And I suspect the existence of Alba will be an additional incentive for those who have gained election to the Scottish Parliament to get on with the job of delivering the Scottish people independence.'

However, Ms Sturgeon is certain to remain First Minister in a coalition with the pro-independence Greens, setting up a constitutional battle with the Prime Minister for Scotland's future.  

Mr Johnson is riding high after a string of election wins for the Tories in England that left Labour in disarray and Conservatives predicting Mr Johnson could be in power for longer than Margaret Thatcher.  

And senior minister George Eustice warned today it was the wrong time to be considering another plebiscite in Scotland. 

The tense parliamentary contest looked on track for a record turnout, despite fears that the pandemic and poor weather would dent voter numbers, with Ms Sturgeon's SNP expected to win its fourth term in power.   

Kaukab Stewart will become the first woman of colour to serve as an MSP in the Scottish Parliament after winning the Glasgow Kelvin seat for the SNP. 

There was a rare glimmer of good news for Labour in Wales as the party equalled its best-ever Senedd result by winning 30 seats, effectively giving it a majority in the 60-seat chamber. It means Labour's Mark Drakeford remaining in place as First Minister. 

Some constituencies are still to be counted today, when the crucial regional list results of 56 regional MSPs will also be declared. Traditional overnight counts were abandoned after Thursday's election due to Covid-19. 

Ms Sturgeon, who comfortably defeated Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar to claim Glasgow Southside yesterday, said afterwards: 'My focus, if we are re-elected as the government, is to get back to work to steer the country through the crisis and into recovery.

'That remains the case. But once the crisis is over, and if there is a majority in the parliament for an independence referendum, people should have the right to choose our future. Scotland's future should always be in Scotland's hands.'

Speaking about the prospect of winning an overall majority, the SNP leader said: 'It's certainly not impossible, but nor is it guaranteed.

'That was always going to be on a knife edge, it comes down to a small number of votes in a small number of seats, so at this midway point it is certainly still there as a possibility, but I have never taken that for granted.

'It is a long shot, to say the least, in a PR (proportional representation) system, to win a majority - you effectively have to break the system. I would like to do it, but I have never been complacent about that.'

But Mr Eustice branded the idea 'a complete distraction,', telling 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.'

In England, Labour this morning blamed the pandemic for 'restricting' the opportunities' for its politicians to campaign after the Conservatives racked up a string of stunning poll victories in the local elections.

Labour will hope for better results today after a bruising Friday. With results in from 84 of 143 English councils, the Tories had a net gain of seven authorities and 173 seats, while Labour had a net loss of four councils and 164 seats. 

In London's mayoral contest, Sadiq Khan's hopes of a second term were growing this afternoon as he opened up a lead over his Tory rival Shaun Bailey. 

The SNP total hit 40 this morning as they held Aberdeenshire East in the first result to be declared on Saturday. Gillian Martin (above, in Aberdeen today) retained her seat with 18,307 votes, with Tory candidate Stewart Whyte in second on 16,418 votes

Votes being counted for the Scottish Parliamentary Elections at the Emirates Arena in Glasgow this morning

Counting continues in the parliamentary contest today, with the main Glasgow counting centre pictured this morning

Votes being counted for the Scottish Parliamentary Elections at the Ingliston Highland Centre in Edinburgh this morning

'King of the North' Andy Burnham piles pressure on Keir Starmer 

Andy Burnham piled more pressure on Labour leader Keir Starmer today as he lashed out at the party for being too 'London-centric'.

The former health secretary, who quit as an MP after losing the leadership to Jeremy Corbyn, also hinted that he would be prepared to have another tilt at the top job after being overwhelmingly returned as Greater Manchester mayor.

Mr Burnham, who has been dubbed 'King of the North' after taking on Boris Johnson over Covid regulations last year, won a second term as mayor with an increased share of the vote, on an increased turnout, from 2017.

It left him the most senior and successful elected Labour Party politician outside the parliamentary leadership of the party.

His success came amid a torrid set of Super Thursday election results for Labour, including losing the Hartlepool by-election to the Conservatives.

In an interview with Sky, Mr Burnham suggested he would entertain becoming leader of the Labour Party 'in the distant future', adding: 'If the party were ever to feel it needed me, well I'm here and they should get in touch.'

He added: 'I have tried twice to be the leader and it has never worked, so I'm not under any illusions that it has never worked for me in the past.

'I feel I am in the best job in the world and we have a massive job ahead of us but I'm here to help the Labour Party if they need it - but they need to change, let's be really clear about this.

'They have lost an emotional connection with parts of the country that is going to take a lot of work to get back, so I think the party has to do a lot of soul-searching about these results and understand why we have done well in Wales, places like Greater Manchester, and it really needs to then buy in to English devolution and build from the bottom up - that's what these results are telling them.' 

The two frontrunners were neck-and-neck last night after early voting in the capital, after polls which saw the Labour incumbent winning by some distance. But this afternoon he opened up a five-point lead over Mr Bailey, 40 per cent to 36 per cent. 

 A decision will be made at 4pm today on whether to announce the result at 8.30pm tonight or tomorrow morning.

Labour was thrashed in the Hartlepool by-election, with Jill Mortimer securing a majority of almost 7,000, while Tory Ben Houchen won a second term as mayor of Tees Valley with a whopping 73 per cent share of the vote. 

And the Tories gained control of a series of councils, including Northumberland, Nottinghamshire, Dudley, Harlow and Nuneaton and Bedworth – reversing the mid-term slump often suffered by governing parties. 

With the Conservatives also winning seats across the West Midlands, senior figures were confident that the region's mayor Andy Street will secure a second term in office when returns there are announced today. 

Meanwhile Andy Burnham piled more pressure on Labour leader Keir Starmer today as he lashed out at the party for being too 'London-centric'.

The former health secretary, who quit as an MP after losing the leadership to Jeremy Corbyn, also hinted that he would be prepared to have another tilt at the top job after being overwhelmingly returned as Greater Manchester mayor.

In Scotland, Ms Sturgeon said the SNP would introduce the legislation for a referendum 'and if Boris Johnson wants to stop that he would have to go to court'. 

She told Channel 4: 'If this was in almost any other democracy in the world it would be an absurd discussion. If people in Scotland vote for a pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament, no politician has got the right to stand in the way of that.'

Mr Johnson said a referendum would be 'irresponsible and reckless' in the 'current context' following the pandemic.

Pressed on what he would do if Ms Sturgeon pushed ahead with a referendum without Westminster's consent, he told the Daily Telegraph: '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.' 

Today, Scotland's Deputy First Minister John Swinney told BBC Breakfast: 'It's very clear that the Scottish National Party is going to be the largest party at the Scottish Parliament by a very significant margin.

'We don't know whether we will have a majority yet, that will become clearer in the course of today I would imagine, and that's an astonishing achievement for us given the fact that we are now about to embark on our fourth consecutive term in government after 14 years and three terms of leading the people of Scotland.

'I think we've had a tremendous success in the election yesterday, we will see what comes in the course of today but the signals are very good indeed and obviously we will then turn our minds to the arrangements post election.'

Asked whether the SNP will continue arguing they have a mandate for a second independence referendum if they win more than 65 seats, he said it will come down to the make-up of the Scottish Parliament and whether there is a majority of candidates who have been elected on a programme to deliver a referendum on independence.

He said: '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.'

London set for three more years of Sadiq Khan

Sadiq Khan's hopes of a second term as London mayor were growing this afternoon as he opened up a lead over his Tory rival Shaun Bailey.

The two frontrunners were neck-and-neck last night after early voting in the capital, after polls which saw the Labour incumbent winning by some distance.

But this afternoon he opened up a five-point lead over Mr Bailey, 40 per cent to 36 per cent.

And in a further blow for Mr Bailey, Mr Khan is ahead in five of the seven boroughs that are yet to complete their counts - with the Tory ahead in the other two.

Although there are thousands of votes still to be counted, Mr Khan's lead over Mr Bailey is far narrower than the 14-point win he achieved over Tory Zac Goldsmith in 2016. 

But the lead could grow if the vote goes to a second round, with Mr Khan expected to pick up more second preference votes than his Tory rival. 

The winner will serve a three-year term due to the election being postponed from last year by pandemic restrictions. 

Scottish Tory finance spokesman Murdo Fraser said the party has been affected by people voting tactically for other pro-union parties but is confident the Scottish Conservatives will hang on to second place in the Scottish Parliament.

He told BBC Good Morning Scotland: 'The early indications are that we have polled very strongly in terms of the regional vote and I would expect that will mean we will come back very close to where we were in 2016 in terms of the number of seats, maybe slightly down, maybe slightly up.' 

Asked whether he is confident the party will hold on to second place he said: 'Oh yes, I don't think there's any doubt of that at all after what I've seen so far.

'Our regional list vote may well even be up on where it was in 2016, and that should translate into seats.'

Meanwhile Mr Eustice said it was the 'wrong time' to hold a second independence referendum in Scotland, with chances of an SNP majority in Holyrood on a knife edge.

The Environment Secretary told BBC Breakfast: 'There was a referendum that took place just a little over five years ago - that was described as a 'once in a generation' opportunity to debate these issues and they did. 

'And I think now, as we try and come out of the pandemic and get economic recovery going, it is the wrong time to have yet another divisive referendum and yet another bout of constitutional argument on a matter such as this.'

Put to him that Brexit had a been a 'fundamental change in British politics' since the 2014 border poll, Mr Eustice replied: 'The important thing is that now we have left the European Union - and yes, that was quite a divisive debate, there is no getting away from that.

'But it does mean that in whole swathes of policy areas, particularly the ones I deal with on the environment, animal welfare, agriculture and fisheries policy, there is now more power going to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland than they have ever had before. 

Labour party leader Keir Starmer leaves his home in North London today, after a defeat for his party in the local elections

People observe the votes being counted as the process continues for a second day at the Emirates Arena in Glasgow today

Votes are counted for the Scottish Parliamentary Elections at the Emirates Arena in Glasgow this morning

Election staff members count votes for the Scottish Parliamentary election at a counting centre in Glasgow this morning

'Radical' Drakeford keeps power in Wales as Labour keeps control of Senedd

Mark Drakeford vowed to be 'radical' and 'ambitious' in government as Labour remained in power in Wales.

The party equalled its best ever Senedd election result by winning 30 seats - just one short of a majority - though it did not take any of the four regional seats declared on Saturday.

With the final results in, the Welsh Conservatives have 16 seats, while Plaid Cymru has 13 and the Liberal Democrats have one.

Mr Drakeford can now choose whether to form a minority government or invite members of other parties into a Labour-led administration, giving the party greater control of the Senedd.

Welsh Labour put the 'extraordinary set of results' down to Mr Drakeford's leadership during the coronavirus pandemic, which has seen the First Minister's cautious and careful approach go down well with voters.

Asked if he planned to continue his cautious brand of politics during a new administration, Mr Drakeford told the PA news agency: 'Well, absolutely as far as coronavirus is concerned. The pandemic has not gone away.

'A government I lead will continue to follow the science to do what our medical advisers tell us we should do, and that does mean doing things in a way that continues to keep Wales safe.

'But on other matters, our manifesto is a radical manifesto with a host of ideas that are ambitious for Wales.

'I'll be very keen to ensure that we give that the most powerful sense of momentum behind it to get those things happening here in Wales.'

Mr Drakeford returned to Labour's offices in Cardiff for reserved celebrations after Friday's night of constituency results gave the party 27 seats.

He visited Porthcawl, Bridgend, on Saturday afternoon to make a speech to party members.

Welsh Liberal Democrat leader Jane Dodds, who won a regional seat in Mid and West Wales after her party lost the Brecon and Radnorshire constituency to the Conservatives, said she has yet to be approached by Mr Drakeford to help form the next government.

She told BBC Radio Cymru: 'I need to speak to other people within the party and we shall have to see.'

The Welsh Conservatives said they had secured the party's 'best ever result' in a Senedd election, winning 16 seats.

This included taking the Vale of Clwyd from Labour, and Brecon and Radnorshire from the Liberal Democrats.

Andrew RT Davies, Senedd leader for the Welsh Conservatives, said he was 'delighted' to have secured those constituency seats as well as an increased number of seats on the regional list.

'It's been an unconventional campaign and it's clear incumbency and continuity has played a significant part,' Mr Davies said.

He congratulated Mr Drakeford and Welsh Labour on a successful campaign and said the election had been fought 'in good spirit' by political parties across Wales.

Plaid Cymru now has 13 seats in the Welsh Parliament, though high-profile former leader Leanne Wood lost her Rhondda seat to Labour.

On her Facebook page, Ms Wood said the result was 'disappointing' but that her team could 'hold our heads high in the knowledge that we ran a clean and honest campaign, we did not denigrate our opponents and we worked hard'.

Polling at the start of the campaign suggested Labour was facing its worst ever result and was at risk of winning as few as 22 of the Senedd's 60 seats, a loss of seven from 2016, though later polls suggested a stronger showing.

'Areas of policy that have been occupied and an EU competence over the last 40, 50 years are now policies that these devolved administrations will be able to exercise judgment on and I think that is going to be really important.'

Asked whether the Government would fight any bid for a second Scottish referendum in the courts, Cabinet minister Mr Eustice said: 'Look, I'm not a lawyer - lawyers will look at these things and I think it is getting ahead of ourselves. 

'We'll have to see how the results pan out later today. There is a question at the moment over whether the SNP will get a majority or not - we'll have to wait and see until the results come through.

'The UK Government's position is very clear on this. We don't think there is a case for another referendum, particularly now as we try and chart a way out of the pandemic and get our economy going again.

'But we will obviously deal with whatever we have to deal with once these elections are settled and once the new Scottish administration decides what it wants to do.'

Mr Eustice also further with his arguments against granting the SNP a second independence referendum in Scotland, calling the idea 'irresponsible'. The Environment Secretary told Times Radio: 'We think this is a complete distraction.

'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.' 

The SNP is on course to secure a fourth term in power in Scotland but could still be blocked from an outright majority by the Tories.

A dramatic day of results yesterday saw the SNP pick up a series of key seats, including three snatched from pro-Union rivals.

But it won't be known whether it has done enough to win a majority until the final constituencies and the vital regional list result are declared later today.

The Scottish Conservatives have relentlessly focused on the peach party list ballot – and believe they have increased their regional vote share compared to a record performance in 2016, when the party secured 23 per cent of the votes.

Of the 48 constituencies which had declared by last night, the SNP had won 39 seats, the Liberal Democrats four, the Conservatives three and Labour two seats.

But the outcome of the regional list vote could be critical in deciding whether the SNP wins a majority.

Despite its strong showing in the constituencies, where its victories included two seats previously held by the Conservatives and one taken from Labour, the SNP is expected to make minimal gains on the regional list.

Polling experts also believe the SNP vote has not increased enough in key constituencies to indicate it will win a majority.

The SNP picked up one crucial seat in Edinburgh Central

Former SNP Westminster leader Angus Robertson won the seat that had previously been held by former Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson.

It also snatched Ayr from the Tories and took East Lothian from Labour.

But all the other 45 seats declared yesterday did not change hands, meaning the make-up of parliament is likely to be very similar to the 2016 term.

The Conservative party focused its campaign on trying to persuade pro-Union voters to back it on the party list ballot in order to deny the SNP a majority.

Early indications suggest it could have increased its vote share in some regions – and Tory strategists hope to improve on the 23 per cent share from 2016.

There were strong signs that pro-Union voters united behind the best-placed rival to the SNP in many key battlegrounds.

The Lib Dems held four of their seats – Orkney, Shetland, North East Fife and Edinburgh West – but narrowly missed out on a key target of Caithness, Sutherland and Ross, where SNP Childcare Minister Maree Todd narrowly held on.

The Tories held two of their Borders strongholds – Dumfriesshire and Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire – and also held off a SNP challenge in former leader Jackson Carlaw's Eastwood seat. However, losing Ayr was a major blow.

Labour's big victory was Jackie Baillie retaining Dumbarton, which was one of the last of the 47 constituencies to be declared last night. It also held Edinburgh Southern as Tory voters lent their support to Daniel Johnson.

Mr Robertson, who won the top SNP target of Edinburgh Central, immediately declared that voters believed that 'Scotland's future should be in Scotland's hands'.

Votes being counted for the Scottish Parliamentary Elections at the Emirates Arena in Glasgow this morning

An election staff member counts votes for the Scottish Parliamentary election at a counting centre in Glasgow today

Staff are seen counting ballots in Aberdeen today, two days after voting concluded in the Scottish Parliament election

An election staff member counts votes for the Scottish Parliamentary election at a counting centre in Glasgow today

Election agents watch votes being counted for the Scottish Parliamentary Elections in Aberdeen this morning

Counting staff are seen carrying ballot boxes in Aberdeen today following the Scottish Parliament election on Thursday

ANALYSIS: It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing

By STEPHEN DAISLEY FOR THE SCOTTISH DAILY MAIL

As we await the full results of this crucial Holyrood election, we appear to have veered into Donald Rumsfeld territory.

George W Bush's Secretary of Defence famously outlined the difference between 'known knowns' (things we know we know), 'known unknowns' (things we know we don't know) and 'unknown unknowns' (the ones we don't know we don't know).

The known known is that turnout is up across a number of constituencies. More voters came to the polls than last time in Perthshire North, Dundee West and Clydebank and Milngavie, to name just a few.

If this trend is replicated nationwide, we'll be looking at a substantially higher turnout than 2016, when just under 56 per cent of the electorate showed up at polling stations.

What we don't know for certain is if that will benefit any one party in a uniform fashion. From the results yesterday, the SNP did benefit from this surge – but we can't be sure that will be the case in every region.

We know the nationalist vote is relatively united, despite the Alba split. Plus, the Scottish Greens generally help rather than hurt the SNP, as they predominantly contest the regional lists.

Since Nicola Sturgeon's party has roughly 40-45 per cent of the electorate baked into its numbers – mostly people who support separation – any uniform national increase in turnout stands a good chance of boosting the SNP's vote.

In such circumstances, the party would be in a strong position to take not only a majority of Holyrood seats, but to do so in the constituencies alone.

We know there has been tactical voting but we don't know by how much or who, if anyone, it will benefit. A Tory source told me the problem was a familiar one – Tory voters are willing to vote tactically for Labour or the Lib Dems, but the reverse is not true.

If this is indeed what has happened, it would mean that, after a decade of Ruth Davidson's endeavours, the Scottish Conservatives are still sufficiently toxic to hamper nationwide tactical voting.

Crudely put, some voters who hate the SNP still hate the Tories more. Speaking of toxic, Alex Salmond's Alba Party appears to have fallen flat.

Asked to describe how the breakaway faction was faring, an SNP source replied with a word that can't be printed in a family newspaper.

In the blame game, it's a toss-up between Salmond's personal standing in public opinion and the feasibility of his 'super-majority' plan, which targeted pro-separation voters dissatisfied with Sturgeon's progress on Indyref 2.

Either the prevalence of such dissatisfaction has been wildly exaggerated or these voters could not bring themselves to vote for Salmond's party.

As ever, there are blips that make a smooth narrative difficult to fashion. Yes, the SNP vote has gone up in most seats so far, but not all of them.

The Nationalist vote dropped in seats they nonetheless held, including Clydebank and Milngavie and Na h-Eileanan an Iar. In Banffshire and Buchan Coast, the drop was dramatic – almost 10 per cent.

We know the various reasons why the SNP share might slip in particular areas, but not why it has done so across such a diverse range of seats.

Finally, there are the unknown unknowns, the surprise results that may be coming. Could the Tories capture Perthshire South and Kinross-shire? How will the regional list seats fall?

The SNP has won the election, but just how handsomely? That's the unknown that will be answered today.  

The former SNP deputy leader said: 'In this most European of capital cities, people have resoundingly rejected the party of Brexit and Boris Johnson. The public has rejected all of the parties that want to block an independence referendum.'

Votes for the Scottish Green Party are up across the country but the margins for seat gains on the regional lists are very slim, co-leader Patrick Harvie said.

Mr Harvie is standing in the Glasgow Kelvin constituency, although the Greens expect to make their gains in the regional list vote.

He said: '(The regional list vote) seems to be up in most places, some places very strongly, like yesterday in Glasgow Southside.

'The tricky thing is the difference between getting our first seat on the board in places like the South of Scotland, Central Scotland, North East - it could be a very marginal difference, a very narrow gap.

'It looks like there's three or four seats which are in contention for us but potentially close. We've still got a way to go yet.'

He added: 'The difference between a result which looks outstanding for us and one that's a bit more conservative is actually very small.'

Following the result in Dumbarton, where Labour saw off an SNP challenge, he said: 'I've always said that Parliament's at it's best when there's a balance and ministers are at their best when they're kept on their toes, whichever political party they're from.

'The Greens will continue to provide a pro-independence majority and I think that looks likely to be the case. We've worked hard over the last five years to push the SNP beyond their comfort zone and we'll keep on doing that.'

Deputy First Minister John Swinney, who held Perthshire North to become the longest-serving MSP in a single constituency, said it was now 'beyond any doubt' that the SNP will form the next government.

He added: 'That is an absolutely gigantic feat for the Scottish National Party to have achieved, to be on the brink of a fourth continuous term.'

Nicola Sturgeon also held off the challenge of Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar in Glasgow Southside. As results were announced at the Emirates Arena on Friday, Mr Sarwar won 10,279 votes to Miss Sturgeon's 19,735.

In 2016, the First Minister won a total of 15,287 votes – with the Labour candidate Fariha Thomas winning 5,694 votes.

After the result, Mr Sarwar said: 'I'm pleased that we doubled the actual number of votes that we got and we increased the share of our vote by 9 per cent.

'I think you can see the immense progress we have made in the last ten weeks.'

He said Labour was still on a journey to build a 'credible alternative' to the SNP.

Former Scottish Conservative leader Miss Davidson insisted her party will still be a strong opposition to the SNP. 

Counting continues in the Welsh Senedd elections at the Cardiff City House of Sport in South Wales this morning

People count the votes in the Welsh Senedd elections at the Cardiff City House of Sport this morning

Counting continues in the Welsh Senedd elections at the Cardiff City House of Sport this morning

Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford is elected as Cardiff West MS after counting at the Cardiff House of Sport yesterday

She said: 'We are going to get into a post-constitution politics in Scotland at some point and I really hope that we do.

Now senior MPs claim the Left's mantle after major success in the polls 

Senior Tories called the Conservatives the 'true workers' party' last night after a series of astonishing electoral gains.

Jill Mortimer took Labour's Hartlepool stronghold – securing only the fifth by-election win by a governing party since the Second World War.

In a second stunning Tory victory in the North East, Ben Houchen secured a second term as Tees Valley mayor. He grabbed 73 per cent of the vote – up from 39.5 per cent four years ago.

The prospects for a hat-trick of successes were rising last night, as the party made gains across the West Midlands, where Andy Street is also bidding for a second term as mayor.

Boris Johnson, who made a whirlwind visit to Hartlepool yesterday, hailed the result as a 'mandate for delivery' on his pledge to 'level up' opportunity across the country. In a sign of the town's remarkable political transformation, well-wishers erected a 30ft inflatable of Mr Johnson outside the counting centre.

On his arrival, the Prime Minister gestured at the inflatable and joked: 'Who's that fat bloke over there?' In the biggest round of local elections for decades, the Conservatives defied the odds to make gains in bellwether seats and traditional Labour areas.

Northumberland, Nottinghamshire, Dudley and Nuneaton and Bedworth all fell to the Tories, having previously been under no overall control.

They also gained Harlow in Essex directly from Labour after seven seats changed hands. Harlow MP Robert Halfon said the result was a sign that the Tories had now usurped Labour as the 'true workers' party'.

The former Tory minister added: 'There has been lots of talk about a vaccine bounce, but it is not just stick a needle in someone's arm and they will vote Tory – it's much more than that.

'Labour has become very metropolitan and its whole campaign has just been negative mudslinging. We have been focusing on people's priorities like the NHS, skills, keeping fuel duty down and recruiting more police. We are the true workers' party now. And the Boris brand works – he is liked by people in a way that Labour do not understand.'

Fellow Tory MP Neil O'Brien, who was appointed last week as the Prime Minister's 'levelling up' adviser, said there was a chance to 'use this incredible moment to change the country for the better'.

Mr Houchen, who has become a galvanising figure for Tory support across the North East, said his thumping win in what was once a rock-solid Labour area was down to a record of delivery following 'years and years of neglect'. He added: 'Governments of both colours have failed to invest in this region and this Government under Boris Johnson has invested hugely – people are seeing tangible benefits on the ground.'

Simon Clarke, Tory MP for Middlesbrough South, said political allegiances that saw some communities vote Labour for decades were now shifting.

'People in the North East have stopped voting Labour 'because my parents did',' he said.

'They are looking at the two parties clear-sightedly, on the basis of what they offer – and they aren't going to go back for being taken for granted.' In Hartlepool, Mrs Mortimer gained 15,529 votes – more than half the total cast.

She said the result – overturning a Labour majority of more than 3,500 at the 2019 general election – was 'truly historic'. The Tory surge also saw the party pick up a smattering of seats in some of the most solidly Labour areas. In Sheffield, the party won its first seat on the city council since 2008. In nearby north Derbyshire, the Tories won for the first time in Clay Cross.

Elections expert Professor Sir John Curtice said early results showed 'Leave and working-class areas are moving more strongly to the Conservatives than are Remain and more middle class places'.

'When you have the party in government, a fortnight before dissolution before election, passing a Bill for another referendum – and saying it has to be Scotland's choice and stating that now – and you have got a former First Minister joining the fray to try to make the vote harder and faster towards independence, which voters in Scotland have already rejected, somebody has to stand up for the over two million people that want to stay part of the United Kingdom.

'If that falls to the Scottish Conservatives then we will do so because we believe that the vote in 2014 should be respected.

'If Labour and the Lib Dems don't want to stand up for it that's up to them but we will.'

She added: 'We have to get past constitutional politics in Scotland and we have to focus on the recovery.'

On the Scottish Tory campaign led by Douglas Ross, Miss Davidson said: 'Absolutely everything that Douglas put together as part of his campaign – I wasn't part of the campaign team and I wasn't part of the planners – was all about not having a referendum so we can focus on the recovery.'

This morning, Labour's shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds told breakfast TV that the pandemic had 'restricted the opportunities' for the party leader Sir Keir Starmer to 'set out his vision' for the country. 

He told Times Radio: 'Keir has been in a situation over the past year where, in the national interest by the way, he has been providing that constructive opposition to the pandemic. And that was absolutely right.

'At a point of national crisis, yes of course you criticise the Government when it was appropriate to do so but it was also appropriate to do things like support the Government on the furlough scheme or supporting the Government on its public health messaging and not, for party political reasons, trying to create confusion around that.

'What that has also meant is that it's restricted the opportunities for Keir to set out his vision.'

Mr Thomas-Symonds said he disagreed with former Labour frontbencher Khalid Mahmood MP's comments about the party being 'captured' by the 'London-based bourgeoisie', pointing to election successes in Wales.

'We did that because we had a set of priorities that spoke to the priorities here of the people - we have to now transfer that across into England,' he added.

Mr Thomas-Symonds said there would be a policy review in a bid to reconnect with voters,and that in places like Hartlepool and its traditional heartlands elsewhere, people 'do not now see Labour as answering' their concerns.

He added: 'That's now what we have to reflect on and why we have to change. Keir has started that process of change over the past 12 months, he's led very courageously on things like tackling anti-Semitism in the Labour Party - now it is a question of moving on, having that review of our policies, economically setting out the difference that we will not go back to the insecure economy of the past and reimagine our economy.

'And also make sure we are changing our party so that our party is connected in communities up and down the country - that is the challenge and we are determined to do it.'

The shadow cabinet member defended Labour's criticisms of so-called 'sleaze' in Government and said the party 'absolutely have to hold the Conservatives to account' when it came to alleged 'cronyism' when handing out contracts and the Prime Minister's spending on his Downing Street flat renovations. 

Also today, Environment Secretary George Eustice said Brexit and the success of the vaccine rollout had helped the Conservatives to win votes off Labour.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: 'When it comes to the really big breakthrough in the Hartlepool by-election and the election of Ben Houchen as well (as Tees Valley Mayor), I think really it is a case of parts of this country feel they have elected Labour for a very long time, they feel taken for granted.

'I think the Brexit decision and the wrangling over that in recent years has focused minds in that they have questioned whether the Labour Party was really in touch with their priorities. And of course the rollout of the vaccine has been successful and I think people feel positive and that they can see a way out of this terrible pandemic we have been enduring.'

Put to him that 'crises favour incumbents', Mr Eustice replied: 'I'm not sure that is the way I would view it.'

Now, Ministers have predicted that Boris Johnson could rule longer than Margaret Thatcher as results showed the Tories could take 36 more Westminster seats from Labour at the next General Election.

They believe there has been a permanent shift in the UK's political identity and claimed Mr Johnson - who has been the premier since July 2019 - could outlast Margaret Thatcher's 11 years in Downing Street, The Times reports.

They believe the Tories must establish an advantage by winning the 'culture wars' and challenging 'woke' views. Meanwhile sources told the Guardian Sir Keir is now considering moving Labour out of London to reconnect with 'Red Wall' voters. 

Labour conceded the results were a 'shattering' blow to Sir Keir, who last night admitted his party had 'lost the trust of working people'.

The dismal results triggered a fresh wave of Labour infighting, with the Left hitting back at claims by Lord Mandelson that the party was suffering the effects of 'Long Corbyn' syndrome.

Khalid Mahmood dealt a fresh blow to Sir Keir last night by announcing he was quitting Labour's front bench.

The former defence spokesman said the party had been 'effectively captured' by a 'London-based bourgeoisie, with the support of brigades of woke social media warriors'.

Labour sources warned that low turnout and voter 'complacency' could even cost Sadiq Khan a second term as London mayor – a contest he had been expected to win by a landslide.

But senior Tories remained on alert for results from the Scottish Parliament elections, with Nicola Sturgeon insisting a majority for the SNP would give her a 'mandate' to hold a second independence referendum. 

On a victory tour of Hartlepool yesterday, the Prime Minister acknowledged that the success of the vaccine programme had played its part in the results, but said it was now up to ministers to deliver for voters on his pledge to 'level up' opportunity.

Liberal Democrats and Greens enjoy resurgence 

The Liberal Democrats and Greens put in a strong performance last night as they picked up a string of Labour and Conservative council seats.

The Lib Dems made gains across the country, including in at least one Brexit stronghold. This will be welcome news to leader Sir Ed Davey after the party's poor performance in the last general election, when then leader Jo Swinson lost her seat. The smaller parties were forecast to take more seats today.

The Lib Dems deprived the Tories of overall control of Cambridgeshire County Council, winning five seats. In Brexit-voting Sunderland, they took four from Labour, while in Sheffield they and the Greens helped deprive Labour of overall control.

In Stockport, the Lib Dems became the largest party, with a one-seat advantage over Labour. They will probably form a minority administration.

The party also made gains in Hull and were also expecting to take seats in Liverpool from Labour, and in Kent and Lincolnshire from the Tories. Sir Ed said: 'In great swathes of the country the Lib Dems are the only party who can beat the Conservatives.'

The Green Party made good progress, winning at least 40 new seats.

There were nine councils where Green candidates won seats for the first time, including Stockport, Northumberland, Hastings, County Durham and Derbyshire.

He said Brexit had allowed the Government to deliver the vaccine rollout 'faster than other European countries'.

Asked about the future, he replied: 'Number one is continuing the vaccine rollout, making sure that we go from jabs, jabs, jabs, to jobs, jobs, jobs, make sure that we have a strong economic recovery.'

The results came as:

Thursday's polls were the biggest test of electoral opinion since the 2019 election, with 48million people able to vote in local, regional and devolved elections.

Both main parties admitted being surprised by the scale of the Tory surge, following a campaign in which normal election canvassing was heavily restricted by Covid regulations. Counting was also delayed by health and safety restrictions imposed because of the pandemic.

But, as the results rolled in, it became clear that Mr Johnson had confounded the conventional wisdom that voters use local elections to punish the sitting government.

Mr Johnson said delivering on his pledge to 'Get Brexit Done' had been vital in boosting Tory support in Leave-voting areas in the North and Midlands. 

He said the results gave him a 'mandate' to deliver on the rest of his programme, but studiously avoided any sense of triumphalism.

Landslide re-election for Red Wall-busting mayor 

The man credited with punching the first brick out of Labour's Red Wall was re-elected as Tees Valley mayor yesterday – after winning 73 per cent of the vote.

Ben Houchen secured 121,964 votes compared with 45,641 for Labour's Jessie Joe Jacobs, the only other candidate, on a turnout of 34 per cent.

Ben Houchen (pictured with his wife Rachel yesterday) was re-elected as Tees Valley Mayor with 73 per cent of the vote

Mr Houchen's close ties with Boris Johnson have been seen as instrumental in securing 'freeport' status for the region and the new northern outpost of the Treasury in Darlington.

He was also hailed for his success in turning around Teesside airport – a central part of his 2017 election campaign in which he vowed to renationalise the ailing hub as part of a ten-year rescue plan. 

Yesterday Mr Houchen, 34, said: 'We've made a fantastic start and I am confident the things we have put in place will bring benefits for everyone across our region, but there is still a long way to go.'

Mr Johnson said people 'can see we did get Brexit done... and I think what people want us to do now is to get on with delivering on everything else'.

In an upbeat assessment he said upgraded economic growth forecasts from the Bank of England suggested there was a 'prospect of a really strong rebound in the second half of the year'.

A lack of Labour wins to celebrate meant that Sir Keir was forced to deliver his response to the election from his office in London.

The Labour leader appeared rattled by the scale of the setback, but insisted the party was not facing an 'existential crisis'. He promised to do 'whatever is necessary' to rebuild voter trust following a 'bitterly disappointing' defeat in Hartlepool.

Lord Mandelson, who once held Hartlepool for Labour, said Jeremy Corbyn still cast a 'long shadow' over the party.

The architect of New Labour said the pandemic had also played a key role, with voters more interested in vaccines and the release from lockdown than day-to-day policies.

Richard Burgon, a former Labour frontbencher, claimed Mr Corbyn would have won in Hartlepool, and urged Sir Keir to move further to the Left.

'We are going backwards in areas we need to be winning,' he added. 'Labour's leadership needs to urgently change direction.'

Meanwhile a Labour frontbencher last night quit his post, claiming a 'London-based bourgeoisie' had 'effectively captured the party'.

Khalid Mahmood warned Labour had 'lost touch with ordinary British people' as others raised fears it may never get back into power.

Sir Keir's allies yesterday argued the party is suffering from 'Long Corbyn' in the wake of its crushing by-election defeat in Hartlepool.

But the leader faced a battering from all sides as both the hard-left and Blairites demanded an urgent change in direction.

His misery was compounded as the Conservatives took control of a raft of local councils in England. Lord Mandelson, who was MP for Hartlepool from 1992 to 2004, said he felt 'a mild fury' at the result.

He added: 'The last 11 general elections read: lose, lose, lose, lose, Blair, Blair, Blair, lose, lose, lose, lose. We need, for once in this party, to learn the lessons of those victories, as well as those defeats.'

The scale of the changes in key areas was laid bare in charts produced by Election Maps UK 

In a further blow, Mr Mahmood last night launched a blistering attack as he announced his resignation as a Labour defence spokesman.

Voters to give Salmond the Alba: Leader expects to miss out on Holyrood

Alex Salmond has admitted he expects to miss out on winning a seat at Holyrood.

The former SNP First Minister said he does not anticipate his Alba Party will gain any seats.

It would be a humiliation after he claimed when he launched the party that it could help secure a 'pro-independence super-majority' of around 90 seats.

Alba leader Alex Salmond speaks in Aberdeen yesterday

But early regional list results in some constituencies indicate that Alba has won just a tiny share of the vote.

If the trend is repeated across the country when the regional list ballot results are confirmed today, Alba would win no seats.

In Aberdeen Donside, where Mr Salmond tops his party's North East Scotland regional list, Alba is estimated to have taken just 2 per cent of the vote – while sources said it was 'barely registering' in other key areas, such as Glasgow.

Mr Salmond appeared to play down hopes of his party gaining seats when he attended his local count yesterday. He told Bauer Radio: 'I think our success is registering as a political party and registering on the political spectrum.

'To form a political party in a six- week period, to publicise it and get the activists, the members, the candidates and the programme, everything else – I don't know if it has ever been done before, certainly not in a general election and this is the Scottish general election. Time will tell if our argument we've been putting forward in this campaign proves correct.'

He went further when interviewed on the BBC last night.

Asked about his prospects, he said: 'Alba are registering as a political party in terms of the vote share we are getting and that is all to the good. But whether we make it tomorrow, I don't think so on the results we've seen.'

He said the SNP looks like it will be 'poised on an overall majority' but there won't be the 'backing in terms of the enthusiasm of getting on with the independence referendum'.

In an excoriating article for centre-right think-tank Policy Exchange, the MP for Birmingham Perry Barr wrote: 'My view is simple, in the past decade Labour has lost touch with ordinary British people.

'A London-based bourgeoisie, with the support of brigades of woke social media warriors, has effectively captured the party.'

He argued: 'The loudest voices in the Labour movement over the past year in particular have focused more on pulling down Churchill's statue than they have on helping people pull themselves up in the world. No wonder it is doing better among rich urban liberals and young university graduates than it is amongst the most important part of its traditional electoral coalition, the working-class.'

Sir Keir last night admitted Labour had lost the trust of voters. But he insisted he was up to the job of leader and vowed to 'take responsibility for fixing things'.

It is understood he will hold a reshuffle of his shadow Cabinet in the next week, but he conceded: 'We have lost four general elections and had a bitterly disappointing set of results last night. This goes way beyond a reshuffle or personalities.'

Party figures yesterday raised alarm at how Labour had failed to make progress despite ditching Mr Corbyn and moving on from the issue of Brexit. 

The Hartlepool result was in part due to voters who backed Nigel Farage's Brexit Party at the last election – when it took a quarter of the vote – switching to the Conservatives. 

There are a further 36 Labour seats across the country where its lead over the Tories in 2019 was smaller than the number who voted for the Brexit Party.

Former Labour cabinet minister Lord Adonis last night admitted 'it could be curtains for the Labour Party'. 'We need to contemplate that possibility,' he told Andrew Pierce's Mail+ podcast.

The peer, who had supported Sir Keir to replace Mr Corbyn, said he now believed he was just a 'transitional figure' and lamented his lack of 'political skills or antennae'.

Lloyd Russell-Moyle, a Labour MP on the party's left, attacked the leader for 'valueless flag-waving and suit-wearing'.

But influential Corbynite figures, including Unite general secretary Len McCluskey and ex-shadow chancellor John McDonnell, stopped short of calling for Sir Keir to go, and argued he should be given more time. 

Mr Corbyn last night suggested Sir Keir's Labour Party was 'offering nothing' to voters.

Asked if Sir Keir should quit, he told Channel 4 News: 'It's up to him what he decides to do. But the important thing is that this party represents a real, radical alternative to inspire people.

'Offering nothing, offering insipid support for the Government, causes people either to vote for somebody else or simply to stay home and disappear.'

Momentum, which backed Mr Corbyn, said the results were a 'disaster'. Co-chairman Andrew Scattergood said if Sir Keir 'doesn't change direction, not only will he be out of a job – but the Labour Party may be out of government forever'.

A JL Partners poll for Channel 4 News found the top reason people gave for not voting Labour on Thursday was Sir Keir's leadership. This was followed by not agreeing with the party's policies, or worrying they did not have any at all.

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