After David Cameron’s surprising victory

09.05.15 Publication:

Until about midnight on May 7th, two things seemed certain about Britain’s general election: first, that the long election campaign had been very boring and unfocused, and second, that the outcome was bound to be chaotic and unstable, leaving the country without a government for days, perhaps weeks. Certainties can dissolve quickly when votes are counted, however: instead the outcome was dramatic, with David Cameron winning a clear victory that was probably a surprise even to him and his Conservative Party, and Britain had not even a minute without having a government. Yet the true drama is only just beginning.

The United Kingdom finds itself now with a surprisingly straightforward, traditional government of one party with an absolute parliamentary majority, unlike at its 2010 election. But its re-elected leader faces two tasks that will be very far from straightforward, and which could transform the country and its place in the world: Mr Cameron will need to create a new constitutional settlement that makes the UK a more federal political system, in order to respond to the even bigger triumph in this election than his, namely that of the Scottish National Party; and he will need to persuade our 27 European Union partners to make sufficient reforms to the EU to enable him to win a referendum on British membership of the EU which is now guaranteed to be held at the latest by the end of 2017.

To achieve those tasks, Mr Cameron will need to show a level of leadership, even of statesmanship, that he has not so far displayed during his five years as Britain’s prime minister. Since 2010, when he entered government in a coalition with the centrist Liberal Democrats, Britain’s first coalition government since 1945, he has been more reactive than truly creative, responding to the changing winds of domestic and international politics rather than succeeding in setting his own agenda.

Now, he has given himself no choice but to set the agenda and become a transformational leader. The alternative is failure, with his legacy in politics as the break-up of the United Kingdom into three or perhaps four separate countries, and the withdrawal of at least the English nation from the European Union. And although right now he feels strong and triumphant, he has to do this with a parliamentary majority of just 8 MPs, which is far smaller than any of the three majorities that Britain’s last transformational Conservative leader, Margaret Thatcher, enjoyed while in office in the 1980s.

The drama of our election results was shown by the fact that as they emerged, the leaders of three defeated political parties all resigned within hours of each other: Labour’s Ed Miliband, chiefly because his party had been completely destroyed in what for decades had been its stronghold, Scotland; Nick Clegg, leader of the centrist Liberal Democrats, because while his coalition partner was being rewarded by voters for their joint governing record, the Lib Dems’ share of the popular vote collapsed by 15% and the party lost more than three-quarters of its MPs; and Nigel Farage, leader of the anti-EU UK Independence Party, because he failed to win election himself and his party ended up with just one MP.

Yet while Labour and the Liberal Democrats were clear losers, the UK Independence Party was in reality part-loser and part-winner. Its share of the vote, at 12.6%, was a lot lower than Mr Farage hoped for just six months ago, and as it was spread thinly across so many English constituencies it failed to get MPs elected thanks to Britain’s rather unfair first-past-the-post electoral system. Yet through Mr Cameron’s victory, UKIP has achieved its principal political aim: to ensure that Britain holds a referendum on membership of the EU.

The Conservative Party’s parliamentary majority has been achieved with 36.9% of the vote. But alongside that must be counted UKIP’s 12.6%, for together these two parties’ votes mean that almost 50% of voters supported parties that were promising a referendum on the EU. So to hold one within the next two years cannot be considered illegitimate. Even so, it is highly risky.

It is risky because Mr Cameron has not yet disclosed, either to the British public or to Britain’s EU partners, what he wants to achieve in terms of EU reform before he holds that referendum. This gives him somewhere between a year and 18 months to launch and then complete his reform initiative. That is very little time, given the slow pace of decision-making in the EU, and is surely too little time to achieve anything that requires a change in the EU’s treaties.

The latest opinion polls show a clear majority of Britons are in favour of the UK remaining in the EU, so perhaps he thinks it is not so risky after all. But the general election result has proven how unreliable opinion polls can be.

The one aspect the opinion polls did get right was the huge victory in the 59 Scottish constituencies for the left-wing, pro-independence Scottish National Party – though even there the pollsters did not predict that the party’s charismatic leader, Nicola Sturgeon, would win 56 of those 59 seats, turning the country almost into a one-party state. It is rather as if the Scottish National Party is now the UK’s equivalent of South Africa’s African National Congress, and Ms Sturgeon has achieved in Scotland, at least for now, a kind of rock-star status.

Dealing with her success and the demands of Scotland for more autonomy should be simpler, in theory, than the task of keeping Britain in the EU. But it won’t be simple, as the other nations of the UK – Wales, Northern Ireland, and the dominant nation of England – also have to be kept happy in whatever new constitutional settlement is negotiated.

To deal with one of these issues would be a tough assignment for any prime minister. To deal with two, simultaneously and at speed, will be extraordinarily difficult. The day may come when David Cameron looks back on May 8th, 2015 and wishes that he had lost.