international analysis and commentary

The surprising Conservative victory in the UK

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It was a night of shocks, one that defied weeks of opinion polls predicting an election too close to call and a hung Parliament. In the end, the result was clear: David Cameron triumphed, Ed Miliband led Labour to a crushing defeat, the nationalists surged in Scotland.

It was a “cruel and punishing night” for the Liberal Democrats, to use the words of leader Nick Clegg. The junior partner in the outgoing government shed dozens of seats, including those of party bigwigs, and was reduced to a mere eight. Clegg retained his seat but resigned in the wake of the electoral catastrophe.

It was a night of frustration for the populist UKIP, who came in as the third largest party in the popular vote, but, due to Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system, managed to win only one seat in Parliament. Even Nigel Farage, the charismatic, fiercely anti-EU leader who had promised a political “earthquake”, failed in his bid to win a seat in Westminster and stepped down.

The Conservatives’ triumph

Cameron’s victory went beyond the wildest of Conservative expectations. With a few constituencies still reporting, the Conservatives won an outright majority in the 650-seat House of Commons – and therefore will not need to form a coalition. Cameron, who will go on to receive a clear mandate to form a new government, called it “the sweetest victory”.

But if his success brings certainty and stability to a political system many in the run-up to the vote had seen as broken, more uncertainty is ahead, with Britain facing the risk of an EU exit.

The country will hold a referendum by 2017 to decide whether or not to stay in the European Union. The promise was a cornerstone of Cameron’s electoral platform: the Prime Minister wants to renegotiate the terms of British membership and then campaign for the country to stay in the bloc, assuming that the negotiations will be successful. Cameron hopes the specter of a referendum – and therefore of “Brexit” (a British exit) – will give him leverage in the negotiations and allow him to win concessions from EU partners. But whether his gamble will pay off remains to be seen.

For now, Cameron can enjoy his domestic triumph. The Prime Minister had seemed to run a limp campaign, even facing a less than formidable opponent in Miliband. He had been accused of lacking passion and seemingly indifferent. Yet, in his understated way, Cameron triumphed. What this means is that voters were persuaded by his message that the country was back on its feet after the financial crisis and that the government needed to finish the job. His government will carry on with the austerity policies of Chancellor George Osborne.

Cameron’s victory also sidelines – at least for now – the prime ministerial ambitions of the London mayor, Boris Johnson, who returned to Westminster after having won a safe seat in Uxbridge, London. Furthermore, in the span of an hour on the morning after the vote, Cameron saw off three party leaders.

Labour’s disaster

With results still trickling in, Miliband was already facing calls to resign – and obliged at mid-morning. It was a drubbing nobody expected, certainly not a man passionate in his beliefs. Miliband had wagered that the financial crisis and what he said was the inequality brought about by the Conservatives had shifted Britain to the left. He repudiated many of the centrist policies of Tony Blair’s “New Labour” to move the party toward the left. Despite skepticism and very low expectations, Miliband ran a smooth campaign. Yet, the son of a Marxist intellectual, Oxford-educated 45-year-old never quite found a connection with working-class voters. He was damaged by what voters consistently saw as lack of leadership and lack of credibility when it came to the economy.

In Scotland, once a Labour stronghold, the party was virtually wiped out.

The SNP won 56 out of 59 seats contested north of the border, up from six in the 2010 election. Labour had to cope with some embarrassing losses: Douglas Alexander, the campaign chief, lost to a 20-year-old student running with SNP; Jim Murphy, the Scottish Labour leader, also failed to secure his seat.

Labour’s debacle in Scotland will have consequences well beyond this election. Yet, it was not just in Scotland that Labour lost the election, it also lost by failing to retain seats in England, let alone gain new ones. Even combining Labour’s seats (229 at the time of writing, more than two dozen fewer than in 2010) with SNP’s, the figure would be well below that of the Conservatives’ alone. In another sign of how bad Labour’s campaign went – not just in Scotland – Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, lost his seat.

Miliband’s resignation paves the way for a change in leadership, and many will be looking across the Atlantic to David Miliband, Ed’s more centrist brother who was defeated in the fight for Labour leadership and subsequently took a job in New York.

SNP’s surge

The Scottish National Party was the other big success, sweeping most Tartan constituencies. Its success – while predicted in the polls – is all the more remarkable because it came just months after the party suffered a huge defeat in the independence referendum last September. Under the leadership of Nicola Sturgeon, by many considered the most effective politician during the electoral campaign, the party has regrouped. Key to their success was the fact that many Scots felt betrayed after Labour joined the Tories (who are widely despised in progressive Scotland) to oppose independence. And even many of those who voted against independence in September turned to SNP this time around. Sturgeon has been saying that a vote for SNP at the ballot did not equal a vote for another referendum. Yet such a strong showing will likely fuel calls to give Scottish voters another chance to vote on whether to break a union that has been in place since 1707. Sturgeon had hoped that a strong showing by SNP might help keep Cameron out of Downing Street – and that did not happen. How loud Scotland’s voice will be heard in a Tory-controlled Westminster remains to be seen.

Pollsters’ flop

Among the biggest flops were the opinion pollsters, whose barrage of erroneous forecasts misled the United Kingdom into expecting Cameron to have little chance of leading another coalition government, let alone gaining the required majority of 326 seats. The final YouGov poll before the election predicted the Tories and Labour tied at 276 seats each.

Indeed, so flawed were the pre-election surveys that two political grandees now face grave indigestion: the Liberal Democrats oldie Paddy Ashdown pledged to eat his hat if his party’s annihilation proved true, while onetime Labour spin doctor Alastair Campbell promised to eat his kilt if the Scottish National Party truly dominated up north. Gentlemen, I trust you brought knives, forks and a sauce of your choosing.

In the end the doomsday predictions of a broken system did not materialize. The British people – even faced with an EU referendum within two years and the possibility of another divisive Scottish referendum in the not too distant future – voted to keep calm and carry on.