Sweet surprise for Tories

The Conservatives have returned with a majority in these elections, but there have been two other startling developments. First is the astonishing success of Scotland’s pro-independence party, which raises the issue of whether the U.K. can stay united. And second is the collapse of both the Labour and the Liberal Democrat parties.

May 09, 2015 01:10 am | Updated April 02, 2016 09:22 pm IST

UNEXPECTED: British Prime Minister David Cameron has led the Conservatives to probably the biggest surprise win in a British general election for 70 years. Picture shows him with his wife Samantha Cameron at 10 Downing Street in London after the win.

UNEXPECTED: British Prime Minister David Cameron has led the Conservatives to probably the biggest surprise win in a British general election for 70 years. Picture shows him with his wife Samantha Cameron at 10 Downing Street in London after the win.

“This is the sweetest victory of all”, David Cameron told party workers on May 8 morning. More because it was so unexpected. “I never quite believed we would get to the end of this campaign in the place we are now,” he said at the party headquarters. The euphoria is understandable. Mr. Cameron has led the Conservatives to probably the biggest surprise win in a British general election for 70 years.

The opinion polls throughout the campaign put Conservatives and Labour so close that everyone was convinced that Britain was heading for another hung Parliament. The Conservatives’ overall majority is wafer thin. All the same, Mr. Cameron was able to call on the Queen to tell her that he will form a Conservative majority government — he no longer needs a coalition partner.

The Conservatives ended up with a 6 per cent lead in the national vote over Labour. With a first-past-the-post electoral system, it has given the Conservatives about a 100 more MPs than their Labour opponents. Although if all the other parties joined forces against them, the Conservatives would have a narrow majority in the House of Commons of about 10 seats.

Referendum on EU issue It is difficult to be sure why, at the last minute, one million or more voters who were thinking of supporting Labour changed their minds. But the Conservatives’ negative campaigning — that >Britain’s economic recovery would be in jeopardy under Labour and that party leader Ed Miliband was too Leftwing to be trusted — seems to have worked.

Mr. Cameron will now have to deliver on his pledge to hold a referendum on whether Britain leaves the European Union. He has promised to hold that vote by the end of 2017 and hopes to negotiate changes to Britain’s relationship with the EU, which will allow him to argue that Britain should stay in. Business certainly wants the U.K. to remain part of Europe. But there is a distinct possibility that Britain will no longer be part of the EU by the time the next general election is held.

The Prime Minister will also preside over further sharp cuts in government spending as he seeks to bring down the country’s stubbornly large budget deficit. It’s not clear where the axe will fall, but welfare benefits will certainly be targeted. Mr. Cameron’s former coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, have been the most emphatic losers at this election — from more than 50 MPs to fewer than 10. Nick Clegg, the outgoing Deputy Prime Minister, was one of the handful of Lib Dems to win re-election, but has made clear that he is standing down as party leader.

The Labour opposition, brushing itself down from its worst election result for a generation, will also now face a leadership election — Mr. Miliband announced his resignation within hours of the scale of the defeat becoming clear. He said this was to allow “a full and open debate” about the party’s future. A bruising battle is already taking shape. “You can’t win from the Left in Britain,” said one Labour insider who was critical of Mr. Miliband — and many in the party believe that Labour needs to embrace the political centre ground. But the radical wing will argue the opposite, insisting that Labour could have won if it had presented a bolder alternative to the Conservatives.

In Scotland, Labour has been outflanked on the left by a nationalist party, which advocated not just independence but an end to economic austerity and a greater emphasis on equality. The scale of the Scottish nationalists’ success is striking; indeed it reshapes British politics. Scotland has 59 seats in the U.K. Parliament — the Scottish National Party had six MPs in the last Parliament; they now have 56.

New political dimensions Just eight months ago, the Scots voted in a referendum against separating from the rest of the U.K. But the surge in support for the nationalists is likely to re-open the issue, particularly if they repeat their success in elections for the Scottish Parliament next year. By 2020, Scotland could well be on its way to full independence. Mr. Cameron addressed this directly when >speaking outside 10 Downing Street on Friday. “We will govern as a party of one nation,” he pledged, adding that further devolution of powers will go ahead promptly. But the tensions of a new political settlement embracing not only Scotland but every other part of Britain will be one of his most pressing problems.

There’s another aspect of Britain’s political system that will also face close scrutiny. The three main nationwide parties — Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats — together won 75 per cent of the vote. Five years ago, they took more than 95 per cent of all votes cast. This sharp swing away from the established parties is one of the most remarkable aspects of the 2015 election.

While the SNP has emerged with a large band of MPs, other parties that have polled strongly will have hardly any representation at Westminster. The right-wing U.K. Independence Party, which wants stricter controls on immigration, took more than three million votes, but has ended up with one MP. The Leftwing Greens did less well, but with a fully proportional system they would have 20 MPs, and they, too, have only one. On both right and left, there will be demands for a new look at a voting system that is not well suited to the multi-party politics that now appears to be a lasting aspect in Britain.

(Andrew Whitehead is a former BBC Delhi correspondent and has also reported for the BBC on British politics.)

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