Against all odds, the Conservative Party has won a majority in the British general election. Brexit is now a real possibility, writes James Bartholomeusz
It is hard to describe the total disbelief hanging in the air last night in Britain. For weeks, the Conservative and Labour parties had been polling neck and neck at around 34% of the vote each. Any advantage that one enjoyed was quickly offset by an alternative poll putting the other in the lead. Another hung parliament was a foregone conclusion, and it was really only a question of which party would come out slightly further ahead than the other, and so would perhaps be handed first choice in the inevitable coalition negotiations.
Yet, just minutes after voting closed at 10pm, the official exit poll was released. It put the Conservatives kilometres in the lead with 316 seats to Labour’s 239, and with the Scottish National Party (SNP) taking all but one of Scotland’s 59. The golden number in the British legislature is 323: in practice, the minimum number of seats a party must win to form a majority government. Far from having to scramble for coalition partners, the Tories were predicted to be only seven short of an overall victory.
The airwaves were immediately beset by party officials denouncing the poll – most markedly the former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown promising to “eat his hat” on live television if the predictions were correct. But, as the hours passed and results came trickling in from seats around the country, it became clear that the poll was not only accurate but, if anything, a slight underestimate of the tumultuous swing. Having earlier been very cautious of accepting the apparently wildly optimistic poll, the SNP ended up taking 56 seats, leaving one each in Scotland in the control of the three main parties. Meanwhile, in England and Wales, the Tories stormed ahead to pass the 323 mark, ending up with an eight-seat majority of 331. At lunchtime today, David Cameron made the ceremonial journey down the road to Buckingham Palace and was granted permission by the Queen to form a Conservative-only government.
Even more than usual, this election will be chewed over ad nauseam for its causes and implications. There can be no doubt now that the division in Britain, between Tory-dominated England and SNP-dominated Scotland, is here to stay. This result follows some others (1966, 1983) in the unusual pattern of an incumbent party increasing its share of seats, but stands out (like 1992) as a shock victory for a Conservative leader whose popularity was widely considered lacklustre at best. Many leading party figures – the Lib Dem Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander, and the Labour Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander and Scottish leader Jim Murphy – have lost their seats. The Greens and UKIP, ostensibly the insurgent forces on Left and Right respectively, failed to make any improvement (the latter failed to push Nigel Farage into the Commons, and even managed to lose one of its two MPs). And in a single day, David Cameron has seen the resignations of almost every one of his rival party leaders – Ed Miliband, Jim Murphy, Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage. Against all expectations, it has been truly wonderful 24 hours for the Conservative Party.
And yet, as always in politics, trouble is already brewing. The 2015 election has crystallised the two constitutional issues that will define Britain in the early 21st Century. One is the status of the union between England and Scotland. Not since the departure of Ireland a century ago has a separatist force held such sway in British politics, and Scotland has whole-heartedly voted for a Left-wing, anti-austerity party that will attempt to wrest as much power from the Right-wing Westminster establishment as possible, with the ultimate goal of an independent state. How Cameron can claim a mandate in Scotland when only one of his government’s 331 MPs represents a constituency north of the border is a troubling question indeed.
The other issue is perhaps even greater, and cannot be extricated from the first. The Conservative manifesto promised a renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership followed by a public referendum on the new deal, a promise that Cameron reaffirmed in his Downing Street address this afternoon. He has thus far used his moderate Euroscepticism as a political football, defining his preference for “reform and stay in” sufficiently broadly as to defer any concrete details on what this might entail until after the election. He no longer has the luxury of time, and there are now a set of other factors in play that complicate the situation further.
Firstly, the Conservatives may have won a majority, but it is hardly a convincing one. With a cushion of only eight votes in the Commons, Tory backbenchers now have the power to exact dramatic concessions from their leadership under the threat of crashing any legislation as it passes through parliament. Secondly, the departure of the Liberal Democrats, whilst liberating in some respects, is a mixed blessing. Cameron could previously use Lib Dem votes as a safeguard against his own backbenchers on certain issues (such as legalising gay marriage) and was also able to use their persistent Europhilia as an excuse to defer confrontation of the EU question. With his centrist praetorian guard gone, he is now exposed to the Right-wing mob, who will surely expect compensation for suffering under five years of a liberal coalition. Thirdly, although UKIP’s number of seats actually went down, the UK’s bizarre electoral system masks the swing in support towards the party amongst ordinary voters. UKIP increased its share of the vote by 9.5% from the last election in 2010 (one of the factors, it seems, that drained support from Labour in many seats it was looking to take from the Tories). Given that UKIP also won first place in last year’s European elections, it will still play a major part in any discussion on Britain’s membership of the EU.
Today, the Conservatives are celebrating a shock win, and Labour has been lightning-struck by a shock defeat. Cameron’s unexpected victory in Westminster deserves praise, but he cannot afford to rest on his laurels, for he has been far from victorious in either Edinburgh or Brussels. That victory has set the terms of another battle, one that will determine the fate of the British state itself.
Image ‘Houses of Parliament at Dusk’ courtesy of geograph.co.uk via Flickr, released under Creative Commons