Britain goes to the polls on Thursday in a bumper set of local elections, including a vote in Scotland that could speed the break-up of the UK.
With everything from the mayoralty of London to the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments and seats on more than 100 local councils up for grabs, the results could be seen as a verdict on Boris Johnson’s government.
But the most consequential race is in Scotland, where an outright victory for the Scottish National Party would pile pressure on Johnson to agree to a second independence referendum.
“Scotland is the one that matters,” said Professor Jonathan Tonge, a political expert at the University of Liverpool.
“I think it dwarfs all others, to be quite honest, because the aftermath of it will probably dominate politics for some time afterwards.”
Johnson said on Wednesday that a second referendum during the pandemic would be reckless.
“I think that most people in Scotland, most people around the whole of the UK, feel that … as we’re coming forwards out of a pandemic together, this is not the time to have a reckless, and I think irresponsible, second referendum,” he said.
Across the UK, Johnson’s Conservatives enjoyed a bounce in the polls as the country’s rapid vaccination programme led people out of lockdown.
But Johnson also faces sleaze allegations that dominated headlines in the final weeks of the election campaign.
The Labour opposition led by Sir Keir Starmer is hoping for signs of recovery 18 months after it suffered a historic thrashing at the last UK general election in 2019.
Labour’s Sadiq Khan is poised for re-election as mayor in London, but the party faces a potential setback in a closely watched by-election in the north-east English town of Hartlepool.
The National examines what’s at stake on an election day.
What’s up for election: All 129 seats in the Scottish Parliament.
Who’s in the running: The SNP, led by Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, is seeking its a fourth election victory in a row and a mandate to hold a new independence referendum.
The Conservatives, currently the second-largest party in Scotland, are seeking to deny the SNP a majority and weaken its push for independence.
Labour elected Anas Sarwar as the UK’s first Muslim party leader in February and hopes to beat the Conservatives to second place.
“He comes across pretty well. He’s the most plausible leader they’ve had in a while,” Prof Tonge said of Mr Sarwar.
There is also a new player on the scene in the form of the Alba Party, a pro-independence party set up by the SNP’s former leader Alex Salmond after he was embroiled in a personal feud with Sturgeon.
Why it matters: The future of the 314-year union between England and Scotland hinges on this election. If the SNP wins a majority, it will seek to hold a referendum on independence by the end of 2023.
The UK government opposes a referendum, but a resounding SNP victory would put pressure on Mr Johnson to allow one, to prevent what Prof Tonge called a “Catalan-style situation” with protests in the streets.
What the polls say: The SNP is expected to remain in power, but whether it will land a majority to fire up its independence push is less clear. Most polls show the Conservatives edging ahead of Labour.
Mr Salmond is calling for SNP voters to give the second of their two votes to Alba, to give pro-independence parties a “supermajority”, but polls show Alba winning less than 10 per cent of the vote.
“The dream for Salmond is for the SNP to fall slightly short so that she [Ms Sturgeon] needs him,” Prof Tonge said.
“You’ve got a very savvy political figure potentially back in the Parliament, so there’s plenty of drama to be had there.”
When to expect results: Many votes will be counted on Friday, but the full picture will not become clear until Saturday when the regional vote is tallied.