Tony Blair was never actually very keen on the devolution process. He granted the devolved assemblies through gritted teeth because it had been a manifesto commitment. So he must now be savouring the irony that it is the maturing of devolution that is posing problems for his prickly successor, Gordon Brown. Labour did not, in fact, do as badly in Scotland as everyone had been predicting, although here we have been a little 'had' by New Labour spin, as they were the ones pumping out stories about how terribly Labour was performing, in the time-honoured tradition of lowering expectations so that the real events don't look so bad! In any event, Labour is one seat behind the Nationalists in Scotland, which is a reversal of sorts. They have received a similar setback in Wales, so their divine right to govern in the two non-English nations has been comprehensively challenged. As, of course, it has in England too. The Conservatives may not have nabbed the northern targets they would have liked, but they still manage to control more councils in the North-West than anyone else, and are far and away the largest party of local government in England as a whole. They also snatched 40% of the vote against Labour's 27%. As Michael Portillo points out in today's Sunday Times, only with a system as ludicrously distributive as ours would a 40 to 27 lead be seen as arguably not enough to guarantee victory at the next general election!
So have Labour stalled and is Cameron a shoo-in at the next general? Er, no and no. With up to three years still left of the parliamentary mandate, Brown has plenty of opportunity to pull surprises out of the bag. It is a remarkable - and not entirely positive - feature that, after ten years as virtual co-prime minister, we still know so little about Brown and what his premiership would be like, a point made in last week's Economist profile. What we do know is that it would be foolish to underestimate his political survivability. Cameron, meanwhile, has proved his own popularity, and the local elections may also suggest that his party as a whole is creeping back into people's affections. He still, however, faces the challenge of policy development, and there are any number of ways that his less politically savvy colleagues could upset the apple cart.
Scotland and Wales, too, are in something of an undetermined land. There is no guarantee that the nationalists in either country will enjoy power, although to deprive Alex Salmond of his expected job as First Minister might have interesting repercussions. The power of 'First Minister Maker' lies with Scotland's fourth party, the Lib Dems, and their national leader, Scotsman Menzies Campbell, is actually quite friendly with Labour's prospective new leader, Scotsman Gordon Brown. Devolution may have given Scotland its own government, but I'm not quite sure what it's left England!
Further observations about the devolution issue, and an assessment of the electoral process that has delivered such interesting results, to appear later!