British Prime Minister David Cameron and his Conservative Party won a stunning election victory in parliamentary elections last week. While the Tories have a majority in the new Parliament, the election has unleashed political forces that will make governing exceptionally difficult and may even threaten the survival of the United Kingdom itself. Britain and the world will now discover how talented and capable a politician Cameron truly is.
The outcome of the British election was uncertain until the moment the polls opened. Then a virtual tidal wave of support emerged for the Conservatives, eviscerating their coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, and handing Labour a reality check that will encourage soul-searching among the party faithful and its leaders. When the dust had settled — and the metaphor is more apt than usual — the Conservatives held 331 seats in the new Parliament, enough for a majority in the 650-seat assembly, Labour had 232, the Scottish National Party (SNP) claimed 56, and the Lib Dems practically vanished, dropping from 57 seats to just eight.
Cameron’s accomplishment has confounded virtually all observers. Reportedly the Tories’ own internal polls the morning of the vote did not show a victory of this magnitude. Governing parties in Britain do not pick up seats in elections. The only other incumbent government to increase its majority in recent history was that headed by “the Iron Lady,” Margaret Thatcher, in the prime of her career three decades ago. That is impressive company, especially for a man considered uninspiring and unsteady.
While Cameron celebrated, his rivals took responsibility for their party’s defeats. Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, only a week ago believed by many to be the country’s prime minister in waiting, resigned. Nick Clegg, head of the junior coalition partner the Liberal-Democrats and deputy prime minister, did as well. Nigel Farage, head of the anti-immigrant, anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP), failed to win a seat in the Parliament; he retains his seat in the European Parliament, however.
Labour and the Lib Dems will now begin periods of intense and extensive introspection to find out what went wrong and how they can regain credibility and trust among voters. Labour will resume its long-standing debate about policy and positioning on the progressive end of the political spectrum. The Lib Dems were punished for seizing the opportunity to govern, a move that seemed to deprive of them of political principle and consistency. The Conservatives squeezed their coalition partners dry and then beat them at the polls.
The Tories were helped, ironically, by UKIP. The party won 4 million votes, about 13 percent of the national total. It claimed only one seat, however, because of the U.K.’s “first past the post” voting system. While Cameron will not have to deal with UKIP as an organization, the sentiment it represents remains powerful in Britain.
Cameron will, however, have to pay close attention to the SNP and its leader, Nicola Sturgeon. The SNP won 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats; having previously held just six seats in the last Parliament, it is now the third force in British politics. Those gains came at Labour’s expense; the party has traditionally been very strong in Scotland.
Cameron cannot rejoice in Labour’s troubles. Scottish independence may have been voted down in last year’s referendum, but Scottish nationalism is on the rise. The next British government will have to devolve more power to Scotland, and another independence vote may be necessary. The prime minister has promised to give more tax and spending powers to Scotland, a step that he said will create “the strongest devolved government anywhere in the world.” The SNP has made clear, however, that those plans do not go far enough.
Unfortunately for the prime minister, additional steps to assuage Scottish demands risk a blowback among many Britons. They see the Scots assuming a privileged status in the U.K. — enjoying rights in both London and Edinburgh, while other Britons have no say in Scottish affairs. Those tensions will increase. Maintaining the union is Cameron’s first priority. The day after the election he promised to “govern as a party of one nation, one United Kingdom.” He may find a partner in Sturgeon, who has promised to speak for all Scots, not just the 45 percent who backed the independence vote last year.
Cameron has made a second pledge, no less consequential. He has promised to hold a referendum on Britain’s future in the European Union within two years. To win that vote, he must quell the growing anger and dissatisfaction with Europe that is manifested most directly in the votes for UKIP, but is not restricted to that group. He has demanded reforms of the EU that return powers to London and ultimately undermine the goal of “ever closer union” among member states. While Brussels’ inefficiencies and shortcomings are legion, Cameron is taking aim at a project that has defined Europe’s last half century. He may well be demanding more than they are willing to swallow.
Prime Minister David Cameron pulled off a remarkable feat last week. He may come to rue his success.
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