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    Elections 2021 questions answered live by The Independent’s chief political commentator John Rentoul

    Thursday is the biggest electoral test of the parties since the general election, with elections for the Scottish parliament, the Welsh senedd, the mayoralties of big English cities and regions, local councils and police and crime commissioners – and a parliamentary by-election in Hartlepool.Opinion polls suggest that Nicola Sturgeon’s ambition of gaining a majority in the Edinburgh parliament is on a knife edge. Given that she is likely to be able to carry on governing as she does now with the support of the Scottish Greens, it is not her future as first minister that is at stake, but possibly the chances of a further Scottish independence referendum. Mark Drakeford, the Labour first minister of Wales, is also poised on a knife edge. He is currently governing with the support of Kirsty Williams, the sole Liberal Democrat, and Lord Elis-Thomas, the independent who was formerly in Plaid Cymru.In England, the polls suggest Labour will lose Hartlepool and many council seats in working-class Leave areas in the north and Midlands – and fail to take the mayoralties of Tees Valley and the West Midlands that were once regarded as prime targets. Keir Starmer may try to rally his troops by pointing to sweeping gains in London and across the south of England. By Friday afternoon, the results should be coming in thick and fast. For Westminster updates delivered straight to your inbox sign up to John Rentoul’s free View From Westminster newsletter by clicking here They will be later than usual because of social distancing at the counts, but the Hartlepool election will be announced overnight (not before 4am, according to the local council) and by mid-afternoon we may have the first-round result from the West Midlands, a handful of English local councils and some early Scottish and Welsh results. I’ll be here to answer your questions, live at 4pm on Friday 7 May.All you have to do is register to submit your question in the comments below. If you’re not already a member, click “sign up” in the comments box to leave your question. Don’t worry if you can’t see your question – they will be hidden until I join the conversation to answer them. Join us live on this page on Friday at 4pm as I tackle as many questions as I can. More

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    Future of UK at stake as millions go to the polls

    The future of the United Kingdom hangs in the balance as Britain goes to the ballot box on Thursday, with a late surge in the polls fuelling Nicola Sturgeon’s hopes of an overall majority in the Scottish parliament – an outcome that she would regard as a mandate for a second independence referendum.The final poll to be released ahead of the “Super Thursday” elections suggested that the Scottish National Party could take 68 of the 129 seats at Holyrood. That would be their highest tally since 2011, when the first SNP majority paved the way for a referendum three years later.And the Ipsos Mori survey for STV News projected a strong performance for the Greens in the regional list section of the vote, delivering Patrick Harvie’s party as many as 11 seats to take the number of pro-independence MSPs close to “supermajority” territory at over 60 per cent of the total.Boris Johnson branded an independence poll “reckless and irresponsible” at a time when the UK is emerging from the coronavirus pandemic.But when asked whether he would permit a referendum if Scotland votes for pro-independence parties, the prime minister did not roll out his usual line that the 2014 No vote had settled the issue for a generation, instead telling broadcasters: “Let’s wait and see what actually happens. I think that most people in Scotland, most people around the whole of the UK, feel that this is not the time.”Meanwhile, the Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, said he was ready to “carry the can” for his party’s performance in the elections, which polls suggest could see Mr Johnson claim a highly symbolic hat-trick of victories in the Hartlepool byelection and mayoralties of Tees Valley and West Midlands.Labour has thrown everything it has at retaining Hartlepool – a town that has been red since the 1960s – and ousting mayors Ben Houchen and Andy Street in contests which Starmer hopes will begin the process of winning back the “red wall” lost to the Tories in 2019.But recent polling has put the Conservatives as much as 17 points ahead in Hartlepool, and projected comfortable triumphs for Houchen and Street, while there was speculation that Labour could even lose control of council strongholds such as Sunderland and Durham.And in eve-of-polling campaigning, Sir Keir appeared to be preparing the ground for a disappointing night, warning that it would take more than a year to “climb the mountain” back from his party’s worst general election defeat since 1935.He signalled that he would resist pressure from the left for a change in direction in response to a poor result, telling broadcasters during a visit to Pontefract: “I am very clear that the strategy is to get from where we were in 2019 to winning the next general election. We’re making progress; that is good – but I never thought it was going to happen in a year. We’ve got further work to do whatever the results tomorrow.”Johnson too was doing his best to dampen down expectations while campaigning in Stourbridge, declaring it “a very tough set of elections” in which many of the 143 English councils up for grabs were last contested at a high point for the Tories in 2017.In a message to voters, Ms Sturgeon stressed her experience rather than the prospect of an independence poll, which she has said she will not attempt to stage while Scotland is grappling with Covid-19.“More than ever, Scotland needs experienced leadership and serious government – and I am ready to get back to work,” she said.By voting SNP on both constituency and regional lists in Scotland’s proportional system, “you can help re-elect me to get on with the job of leading us out of the pandemic and into a brighter future”, she said.But the Ipsos Mori poll suggested that, while taking 50 per cent of constituency votes, the SNP would shed support in the regional section, which favours smaller parties, with IndyRef2 supporters flocking to the Greens rather than Alex Salmond’s newly formed Alba Party, which was not slated to win a single seat.In a video message to supporters, Mr Salmond warned that a regional list vote for the SNP would be a “back door” for unionist parties to scoop seats, denying Alba “a bridgehead in the Scots parliament to develop some urgency into the independence case”.A poll by Survation also projected an overall SNP majority at Holyrood, with 66 MSPs, while Savanta Comres had Ms Sturgeon’s party on just 59 – two down on their current 61 and few enough to stop the momentum towards a referendum in its tracks.All the polls had Douglas Ross’s Scottish Conservatives holding on to second place in the Edinburgh parliament ahead of Labour under Anas Sarwar, who admitted it was “a mountain too high” to hope to become first minister less than 10 weeks after taking the party helm.Elections expert John Curtice said the SNP majority could come down to nine battleground constituencies where Ms Sturgeon’s party is challenging a Tory or Labour lead of five points or less.An overall majority would immediately put Ms Sturgeon’s government on a collision course with Westminster, with section 30 of the Scotland Act requiring the first minister to request permission from the prime minister for a vote to separate from the UK.But polls continued to suggest that any independence vote would be a close-run affair, with the two sides evenly split in the Ipsos Mori survey, and Yes lagging on as little as 46 per cent, according to Savanta ComRes.As well as the Scottish parliament and English councils, voters are electing 13 English mayors, 39 police and crime commissioners, and members of the London Assembly and Welsh Senedd. So-called “Super Thursday” will see the largest electoral exercise outside a general election for many years, after dozens of polls – including for London mayor – were held over from 2020 because of the pandemic.Savanta ComRes polling found that Welsh Labour were likely to be the largest party at the Cardiff Bay assembly, but could fall short of a majority. More

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    India’s foreign minister ‘exposed to possible Covid cases’ after G7 meetings in London

    India’s minister for external affairs has been informed of “exposure to possible Covid positive cases” after arriving in the UK for the first in-person meetings of G7 foreign ministers in over two years.It comes amid reports that two members of the country’s delegation to the summit in London tested positive for the virus. Daily testing protocols have been put in place for the meeting by Public Health England.Posting on Twitter, the Indian minister Dr. S. Jaishankar, who met with Priti Patel, the home secretary, on Tuesday as part of meetings in London, said he was now participating virtually as a “measure of abundant caution”.“Was made aware yesterday evening of exposure to possible Covid positive cases,” he said.“As a measure of abundant caution and also out of consideration for others, I decided to conduct my engagements in the virtual mode. That will be the case with the G7 Meeting today as well.”A senior UK diplomat added: “We deeply regret that foreign minister Dr Jaishankar will be unable to attend the meeting today in person and will now attend virtually, but this is exactly why we have put in place strict Covid protocols and daily testing”.An Indian government source later told The Independent that all members of the country’s delegation were tested for Covid before departing for the G7 event on Sunday evening and reported negative results.“We are working with the UK health authorities to figure out what the protocol is, what is the level of exposure that the minister might have had,” they added.“Meanwhile out of an abundance of caution, as he said, and out of consideration for his group he is doing everything online, which is very sad because he went all that way for this. Hopefully the British authorities will tell us what exactly will be the protocol, whether further tests are required and so on.”It is understood the Indian delegation had not yet attended the formal G7 meeting at Lancaster House, but did have other meetings in advance. However, Public Health England has determined the risk to those from other delegations, including the UK, was low and they do not have to self-isolate.Under current travel restrictions, India is on the “red list” meaning people arriving from the country must quarantine for 10 days in a government-designated hotel, but there are certain exemptions, including for diplomatic missions.Last month, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, insisted “strict” Covid-19 secure measures had been put in place, including daily testing and domestic social distancing guidelines. The last in-person meeting took place in 2019 at Dinard and Saint-Malo in France — before the pandemic forced countries to close borders and impose restrictions.India is not a member of the G7, but the country was invited to the high-level event as a guest nation, ahead of a major summit of leaders in Cornwall next month led by Boris Johnson.Pressed on whether it was a mistake to hold the meeting in-person, the prime minister told reporters: “I think it’s important to try to continue as much business as possible as you can as a government. “We have a very important relationship with India, with our G7 partners. As I understand it what’s happened is the individuals concerned are all isolating now and when I see the Indian foreign minister later this afternoon that that will be a Zoom exchange.”But Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, said there were questions that needed answering after India’s foreign minister was forced to self-isolate, “if only to make sure it is not repeated”.“It is a reminder of how vigilant we need to be about our borders – we’ve been challenging government on this for some months.“Let’s get to the bottom of how this happened – we cannot have a repeat. More broadly, my thoughts are with all those in India who are suffering – we’ve all seen those images, we must all do whatever we can to help the Indian people in their hour of need.”On Wednesday, foreign ministers from other nations arrived at Lancaster House in central London for the second day of the summit, with foreign secretary Dominic Raab arriving at the venue ahead of officials from France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Canada, the US and the EU. More

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    UK sanctions 22 people involved in notorious corruption cases

    The UK has sanctioned 22 people involved in a series of notorious corruption cases, the foreign secretary Dominic Raab has announced.Individuals across Russia, Latin America and South Africa have been hit with travel bans and had their assets frozen.The moves are part of the first wave of sanctions under a new global anti-corruption regime, and have been applied partly in tandem with measures in the US.Fourteen of those affected were involved in one of the largest tax frauds in recent Russian history, as exposed by the late lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.Mr Raab said the sanctions target those involved “in some of the most notorious corruption cases around the world”.He acknowledged to MPs that the UK can be a “honey pot” for those looking to launder dirty money.But he said the new regime would be “an additional powerful tool” to hold corrupt individuals to account.”It will prevent corrupt actors from using the UK as a haven for dirty money, while combatting corruption around the world,” he told the Commons.Labour broadly welcomed the announcement, but warned the prosecution rate of economic crime was “woefully low”.Shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy told Mr Raab: “If he’s serious about what he’s saying today he needs to put his money where his mouth is.”She also criticised a “tangled network of financial interests and cosy relationships in the heart of government”, as she quoted recent messages exchanged between Boris Johnson and Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman.A Honduran congressman accused of facilitating bribes to support drug trafficking was among those targeted.Others included a member of Nicaragua’s Sandinista party linked to misappropriation of public funds.Duncan Hames, from Transparency International UK, said the new regime was not a “silver bullet for tackling the UK’s role as a safe haven for the corrupt”.But he added that the “use of these powers should send a firm message to corrupt individuals and their enablers who have enjoyed the freedom to travel to and invest in the UK, that they will no longer be welcome here.”US secretary of state Antony Blinken welcomed the moves, saying: “The United States commends the United Kingdom on the establishment of a global anti-corruption sanctions regime, which reinforces the US-UK partnership in the fight against corruption and illicit finance.”Corruption undermines the rule of law, weakens citizens’ trust in their governments, hampers economic growth, and facilitates transnational crime and human rights abuses.”This article was amended on 5 May 2021 to remove an incorrect reference to individuals from Saudi Arabia being included in the list of people affected by these sanctions. More

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    2021 elections – live: Starmer says Labour 'climbing mountain' as SNP rule out ‘wildcat’ independence vote

    Starmer says he is fighting for every vote in Hartlepool by-electionKeir Starmer has admitted that Labour is climbing a “mountain”, after polls predicted that his party will lose tomorrow’s crucial by-election in Hartlepool. Speaking the day before the local elections, Mr Starmer said he faced many chanllenges when he became the party’s leader last year. “That’s the mountain we’re climbing. We’re on that mountain, we’re climbing and we’re going into the elections tomorrow fighting for every vote,” he added.Elsewhere, Jonathan Reynolds, the shadow work and pensions secretary, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that things had improved since Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure.“It’s a lot warmer for Labour than it was in 2019, there’s more willingness to engage with us,” he said.However, he admitted the party still had some way to go, saying “people might not be totally convinced yet but they want to have that conversation”.Up in Scotland, the incumbent first minister Nicola Sturgeon has promised not to hold a “wildcat” second independence referendum if the SNP gains a majority at Holyrood.“I’ve said consistently all along, sometimes to criticism from people in my own side of the argument, I would not countenance an illegal referendum – not least because it would not deliver independence and I want Scotland in the fullness of time and in due course to become an independent country,” she told Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross.Show latest update

    1620224425Raab outlines UK’s ‘expanded commitment’ to Indo-Pacific Dominic Raab has spoken about the UK’s “expanded commitment” to the Indo-Pacific region at a meeting with his Australian counterpart.The foreign secretary met Marise Payne this morning, declaring that the UK would cooperate closely with Australia on security challenges in the region. The ministers also discussed the treatment of the Uighurs in Xinjiang, China, and the situation in Myanmar after the coup on 1 February.A FCDO spokesperson said: “Both the foreign secretary and foreign minister agreed to work closely together on our mutual priorities. They also discussed the international Covid-19 response and the need to ensure equitable distribution of vaccines.”Rory Sullivan5 May 2021 15:201620223225Sign up to our View from Westminster newsletter Want to be plugged into all the latest political developments?Then sign up to our View from Westminster newsletter, which will give you a dose of sharp analysis each evening, courtesy of the veteran politics commentator John Rentoul. Rory Sullivan5 May 2021 15:001620222025UK and Germany resolve to work together on climate action Boris Johnson and the German chancellor Angela Merkel have resolved to work together to tackle the global climate crisis.The pair had a conversation before the Petersburg climate dialogue on Thursday. A No 10 spokesperson said: “The Prime Minister spoke to German Chancellor Angela Merkel this afternoon, ahead of the Petersburg climate dialogue tomorrow.“They discussed the importance of all countries making concrete commitments to reduce carbon emissions and supporting developing countries to do the same, including by raising contributions towards climate finance.”Rory Sullivan5 May 2021 14:401620220857Outcome of Brexit negotiations down to ‘quarrels and betrayals’ of Tory MPs, says Barnier The outcome of the UK and EU’s Brexit trade deal resulted from “the quarrels, low blows, multiple betrayals and thwarted ambitions of a certain number of Tory MPs”, Michel Barnier has said.In his diaries – published in France under the title The Great Illusion – the bloc’s chief negotiator wrote that Theresa May was “a courageous, tenacious woman surrounded by a lot of men busy putting their personal interests before those of their country”.He described her successor Boris Johnson’s negotiation tactics more harshly, saying he tried “advancing like a bulldozer, manifestly trying to muscle his way forwards” without any sense of legal nuance. Rory Sullivan5 May 2021 14:201620219642Scrap National Citizen Service and fund youth services, Lib Dems sayThe government should scrap the National Citizen Service (NCS) and use the money to properly fund council youth services, the Liberal Democrats have said. Branding the youth programme “David Cameron’s pet project”, Lib Dem education spokesperson Daisy Cooper said the money should be given to councils who would make better use of it.The policy recommendation comes amid warnings of the widespread impact of lockdown on children’s mental health and emotional wellbeing, reports our policy correspondent Jon Stone. Sam Hancock5 May 2021 14:001620218618Who are Wales’ first minister candidates?Thursday’s 2021 Welsh parliament election will see its three largest political parties – Welsh Labour, the Welsh Conservatives and Plaid Cymru – compete to form the country’s next government.But who are the party leaders vying to be the country’s next, or returning, first minister (FM)?Mark Drakeford – current FMMr Drakeford, 66, who became the Welsh Labour leader and FM of Wales in December 2018, following the resignation of his predecessor Carwyn Jones, will fight in his first election as party leader this year.While his public profile has been boosted within Wales and across the UK due to the pandemic, he has faced criticism from Welsh businesses for his cautious easing of restrictions and was forced to defend comments that Wales’s vaccine rollout was “not a sprint” as the country initially lagged behind the rest of the UK.During the pandemic Mr Drakeford has opposed growing support for Welsh independence, instead arguing for “an entrenched form of devolution” which cannot be rolled back by the UK government.In March he said the United Kingdom “is over” and a new union should be crafted to reflect a “voluntary association of four nations”.Andrew RT DaviesMr Davies was reappointed as group leader of the Welsh Tories in January. This is his second election, having led from 2011 to 2018 before quitting following a party row over his support for Brexit.Unlike his rivals, Mr Davies’ official title only extends to leader of his party’s group in the Senedd and not of the party itself.In January, the 53-year-old was criticised for accusing Sir Keir Starmer of campaigning to “overturn democracy” in a response to the Labour leader’s condemnation of the mob invasion of the US Capitol in Washington DC, but Mr Davies refused to apologise for his comments.He has previously said that Wales needs an independence referendum “like it needs a hole in the head” and is satisfied with the country’s devolution settlement.Adam PriceAdam Price became leader of Plaid Cymru in September 2018 after taking over from Leanne Wood. Since then, Mr Price, 52, has tirelessly campaigned for Welsh independence and claimed the pandemic was “game changer” for the movement.He has also claimed the UK government’s initial refusal to extend its furlough scheme to accommodate Wales’s firebreak lockdown – only to do so when England went into its own lockdown – would go down in history as the moment that put Wales “on the path to independence”.During his time in Westminster he campaigned to impeach Tony Blair over the Iraq War, and was ejected from the Commons in March 2005 for refusing to retract a statement accusing the then-PM of misleading parliament.He joined the Welsh Assembly in 2016 and later became the first openly gay party leader in Wales’ history following his 2018 leadership victory.Sam Hancock5 May 2021 13:431620217534‘It’s been a tough campaign for the Lib Dems,’ admits DaveyLib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey has said the pandemic’s impact on campaigning, and the ability to be a “community politician”, has been tough on his party. Campaigning in Surbiton today, in his own constituency, he stopped to tell BBC reporters: “We are community politicians, people know we get things done. “We’ve had a weird election campaign because of the pandemic – not been able to get on the doors as much as we would have liked to, but when we have been able to talk to people they respond positively to the Liberal Democrat message.”When asked if he would predict how the party will do in tomorrow’s election, he said:“We are going forward to polling day positively. We think we can make gains from the Conservatives and Labour, but it’s just been such a weird campaign – it’s difficult to say anything beyond that.”“It’s been a tough campaign”, he added.You can read more about the 20 Mayor of London candidates here. Sam Hancock5 May 2021 13:251620216464Johnson appeals to West Midlands voters in Tory mayoral raceBoris Johnson has, once again, urged voters to back Andy Street in the “very close” West Midlands mayoral election as he joined the Conservative mayor for a canal bike ride.The PM stopped to tell members of the public that Mr Street would “boost skills and drive long term growth in jobs”.But the former John Lewis boss faces competition from current Labour MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill Liam Byrne, who previously said his party’s losses in the region in 2019 were “really significant”.The West Midlands is the largest region in the UK outside of London and is subsequently seen as a key battleground in the upcoming local and mayoral elections.Mr Johnson said he expected the vote to be “very close” but urged West Midlands voters to back Mr Street’s “fantastic agenda”.Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer is also campaigning in the region today on behalf of Mr Byrne.Sam Hancock5 May 2021 13:071620215125Home Office announces immigration fast-track for winners of Oscars, Nobel Prizes and Golden Globes Winners of awards including Oscars and Nobel Prizes will be fast-tracked through the UK’s immigration system, the Home Office has announced.Priti Patel said the reforms would help attract “the best and brightest” to Britain. Our policy correspondent Jon Stone reports: Rory Sullivan5 May 2021 12:451620214250Sign up to our morning politics newsletter Politics lovers, stay up to date with the latest developments in Westminster via our morning round-up, sent straight to your inbox. If you haven’t already, sign up to Adam Forrest’s Inside Politics newsletter here: Rory Sullivan5 May 2021 12:30 More

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    Scrap National Citizen Service and use money to fund youth services, Lib Dems say

    The government should scrap the National Citizen Service (NCS) and use the money to properly fund council youth services, the Liberal Democrats said,Branding the youth programme “David Cameron’s pet project” Lib Dem education spokesperson Daisy Cooper said the money should be given councils who would make better use of it.The policy recommendation comes amid warnings of the widespread impact of lockdown on children’s mental health and emotional wellbeing. “Children and young people have experienced devastating upheaval in the last year- spending months out of school and isolated from their friends. As we begin to emerge from lockdown, educational and emotional recovery must go hand in hand,” said Ms Cooper.“Local authority run youth services can play a crucial role in supporting young people to recover from the impact of the last year. They are embedded within their local communities so are best placed to understand the needs of the young people they work with.”The NCS was announced by Mr Cameron in 2010 as part of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition’s “Big Society” initiative, launching in 2011.It is a voluntary school holiday programme that offers two to four week programmes covering outdoor education, independent living, and a “social action” element such as fundraising. The government made the scheme, which covers 16 and 17 year olds, permanent in 2017.The scheme has received £1.26 billion in government funding from 2016 to 2020. The Lib Dems also want the government’s announced £500 million Youth Investment Fund to be allocated to councils.More than 600 youth centres closed between 2010 and 2018 as councils struggled to make savings required by central government cuts.In a letter to the government Ms Cooper said the NCS provided only a “short, time-limited programme to a limited age group” and that local services would be more useful, Ms Cooper added: “The NCS does some good work but properly funded local youth services will reach more young people and provide a wider range of services. “This includes vital work on education, providing mental and emotional wellbeing support as well as social, creative and sporting activities. “The Government must urgently reallocate funding to local authorities so that every young person can access the services they need, wherever they live in the UK.”The Local Government Association made a similar call for funding to be devolved to councils last year. More

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    Why Brexit means Britain’s chances of getting a good trade deal with India are slim

    Generally, it stands to reason that the larger you are, the more chance you will have of securing an advantageous trade deal. This certainly seems to be holding true in the case of the UK and the (rather larger) EU’s attempts to secure closer economic relationships with the United States and with the emerging global industrial superpowers of India and China. Britain finds it fairly easy to adapt existing EU deals with the likes of Kenya or Jordan, and the talks with New Zealand seem to be going well. But, with respect, they are not going to fuel the British economy as it loses its old advantages in continental Europe. Britain needs to hitch itself to bigger, more dynamic powerhouses. It is stumbling.So far the EU is well ahead of the UK in the race for China, partly for political reasons. With Joe Biden pursuing much the same protectionist agenda as his predecessor – his vast $1.9 trillion stimulus is firmly focused on American jobs – neither the British nor the Europeans are likely to make much headway. The most “available” prize is thus India. Here, the British are a few months behind. EU negotiators will be at work by the end of the week; the UK side will have to wait their turn in the autumn. No surprise, that, given that the EU market is around 10 times as large as the British, but a sobering corrective to the buccaneering dreams of “Global Britain” some still seem to cling to.Of course the British trade secretary, Liz Truss, is proud of securing some £1bn of Indian investment and the prospect of some 6,000 jobs being created (according to government claims) in the next year or so. Yet two hypothetical, but important questions, arise: how much of that investment would have materialised if Ms Truss and her department didn’t exist; and how much would have been precluded or delayed if the UK were still part of the EU, with all of its negotiating heft? It is at least possible that Indian companies, like the Japanese before them, would have preferred to have Britain as a base inside the EU single market, and would have invested more if that was still the case. More

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    COVID-19 overshadows independence in key Scottish election

    James Cook was an enthusiastic supporter of Scottish independence, but now he’s not so sure. As Scotland holds an election Thursday that could be a stepping stone to the breakup of the United Kingdom, the seafood wholesaler has more urgent things on his mind. Britain’s exit from the European Union and the coronavirus pandemic have caused economic upheaval, and he says it’s not the right time to gamble on independence.“A third major event could be cataclysmic for us,” Cook said.The question of independence overshadows the election for the 129-seat Scottish Parliament. The Scottish National Party which has led a minority government since 2016, says a big victory will give it the moral right and the political momentum to hold a referendum on whether Scotland should end its three-century union with England.Scotland voted to remain part of the U.K. in a 2014 independence referendum that was billed at the time as a once-in-a-generation decision. But SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon argues that Brexit has fundamentally changed the situation by dragging Scotland out of the European Union against its will. The U.K. as a whole voted narrowly in 2016 to leave the bloc, but a majority of Scottish voters wanted to remain in the EU.Sturgeon says that if she wins a majority on Thursday, she will pass legislation through the Scottish Parliament for a new independence referendum, forcing British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to challenge the law in court if he wants to stop it.Elections are also being held Thursday for the Welsh Assembly, London mayor and local authorities across England, in the biggest test of Britain’s political temperature since Johnson’s Conservatives won a general election in 2019.Polls suggest it’s almost certain the SNP will win the most seats in Scotland’s semi-autonomous parliament, but may not secure an overall majority. For some voters, the issue of independence has been supplanted by more urgent concerns — not least COVID-19, which has cost thousands of jobs and caused more than 7,600 deaths in this country of 5.5 million people.Brexit has also prompted some to reconsider. Fractious, years-long divorce negotiations between the U.K. and the much larger EU proved harder than British Brexit-backers had promised — a foretaste of how a future U.K.-Scotland split could unfold. New post-Brexit barriers to trade with Europe have hammered Scottish business including fish and seafood exporters, who say checks and red tape have left Europe-bound catches rotting in trucks.“Businesses are really on the back foot at the moment,” said Cook, who runs seafood seller D.R. Collin & Son in the port of Eyemouth, near the Scottish-English border. “So I think if you speak to anybody that is business-orientated, they will be a bit cautious.”Cook said he still supports independence in the long term, but there are “a lot of issues we need clarity on” first.Sturgeon has downplayed independence in her campaign, stressing her credentials as a safe pair of hands to lead Scotland’s recovery from the pandemic.“I am the only candidate for first minister offering tried and tested leadership to guide us through the crisis and into recovery,” Sturgeon said in an open letter to Scottish voters, which didn’t mention independence.Sturgeon, who has led Scotland since 2014, has seen her reputation enhanced by her response to COVID-19. Her calm, crisp style contrasts with the erratic messaging and frequent policy shifts of Johnson, whose brand of posh, polysyllabic Englishness grates on many Scots.Her popularity has left Scotland’s two big pro-Union parties, the Conservatives and Labour, fighting over second place. Both parties have seen their poll ratings plunge in recent years. But both are hoping for a comeback under new leaders, Anas Sarwar for Labour and Douglas Ross for the Conservatives.On Sturgeon’s other flank is the uncompromisingly pro-independence former SNP leader Alex Salmond. He and Sturgeon are former friends and political allies who fell out over misconduct allegations against Salmond, who was tried and acquitted last year on sexual assault charges. Salmond says the allegations were part of a witch-hunt by his political opponents, and attacked the Scottish government, and Sturgeon, over how they were handled.In March, Salmond announced he was forming a new pro-independence party, Alba — the Scottish Gaelic word for Scotland. Alba is not running against the SNP in Scotland’s 73 parliamentary constituencies but is fielding candidates in the regional contest used to elect the other 56 lawmakers. Salmond says Alba seats will help form a pro-independence “super majority” in the Scottish Parliament.Salmond is a huge figure in Scottish politics who as first minister secured the first independence referendum in 2014. But his attempts to stay in the limelight — which include hosting a talk show on the Kremlin-funded TV channel RT — and the sex abuse allegations have tarnished him. Polls suggest voters have limited appetite for Alba’s chest-thumping style of Scottish nationalism and are more in tune with Sturgeon’s take-it-slowly approach.“I completely understand the emotional pull of independence,” said undecided voter Olive Burnside, a retired English teacher in Glasgow. “And also I would love to be free of the bunch of idiots — well, corrupt people — that we have in (the U.K. government in) Westminster at the moment.“So my heart says, ‘Oh yes it would be great.’ But my head just does wonder about the economic side of things, about managing such a small country.”Mark Diffley, a political pollster in Edinburgh, said “there is very little support, including amongst independence supporters” for a referendum soon.“The economic prospectus for independence is now not really worth the paper it’s written on, because COVID has just put an earthquake in the middle of any economic forecasts,” he said.“It will suit everyone, I think, to let this settle — let the dust settle on the election, let the focus be on the economic and social recovery from the pandemic and address the independence question a bit later.”___Jill Lawless reported from London, and Renee Graham also reported from Glasgow. 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