Triumph, despair and revenge at the British ballot box

Published by The Wall Street Journal (9th May, 2015)

On Thursday evening, as the final voters were trudging to polling stations, David Cameron was handed his party’s predictions for the British general election. The tally suggested that his Conservatives would win 295 seats — significantly shy of the 323 needed for a majority in Parliament. That estimate seemed in keeping with polls that have been deadlocked all year between the Tories and their Labour Party rivals. At best, a shaky multiparty coalition seemed to be in the cards.

Pundits and polling agencies had warned that Britain was on the brink of a constitutional crisis, as insurgent forces to the left and right ensured that neither of the main parties would gain enough of an upper hand to form a stable government. No matter what the parties threw at voters, the polls barely shifted; there was talk of an immediate second ballot if no coalition able to muster a majority could be formed.

Instead Mr. Cameron has returned to No. 10 Downing St. after one of the most dramatic and unexpected electoral victories in British history. Such was his success that the Tories in the end won 331 seats and will govern alone instead of continuing in coalition with the centrist Liberal Democrats. It is almost impossible to exaggerate the seismic nature of the unfolding events as the results poured in through the night, although the instant resignation of three rival party leaders gives some indication of their epic scale.

The result is a personal triumph for the prime minister. An affable pragmatist, he has proved his popularity with voters despite skepticism from within his own ranks. Mr. Cameron captured the country’s top job in 2010 after the biggest net gain of Tory seats in nearly eight decades—and he has now done even better, against all expectations. He was aided by the fastest-growing major advanced economy, yet he had also unleashed tough public-spending cuts that threatened his appeal as a moderate.

Mr. Cameron was clearly euphoric on Friday, telling party workers that ‘the sweetest victory’ had proved his critics wrong. But he was helped by Ed Miliband, the lackluster left-wing Labour leader, who struggled to convince British voters that he was up to the job of running their country. Mr. Miliband’s refusal to acknowledge his party’s profligacy in office under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown reinforced perceptions that Labour could not be trusted to handle the economy. The party lost 26 seats.

The lesson, one of the prime minister’s closest allies told me, is that center-right parties can win if they stay on the inside track: ‘Labour were a party of the left and we were the party of the center.’ Now the Tories face the challenge of governing with a slim majority constantly at risk from right-wing rebels, especially with questions raised over Britain’s membership in the European Union. Mr. Cameron has pledged to hold a national in-or-out referendum if re-elected, and he will follow through, but the debate threatens to split the Conservatives and reopen festering wounds. The prime minister is aware of such risks; as a young party aide he saw how a handful of eurosceptics wrecked another Conservative government after John Major’s slender and surprising victory in 1992.

Yet in many ways this was not one election but a series of interlocked skirmishes, and Mr. Cameron wasn’t the only winner. The Scottish Nationalist Party took 56 of the 59 seats on its home turf, which will ensure that the potential breakup of the United Kingdom remains in play. The SNP’s surge —sparked rather strangely by its failure to win last year’s independence referendum — turned into a conquest of historic proportions in this former Labour heartland. Under a charismatic new leader, Nicola Sturgeon, who proved to be a powerful campaigner with her antiestablishment populism, the SNP achieved a series of unprecedented swings and is now the third-biggest party in Parliament.

Mr. Cameron will respond with federalism, devolving more powers to Scotland in hopes of staving off its independence. Yet this astonishing SNP wave exposes again the lingering fissures in a union of nations more than three centuries old. Ms. Sturgeon’s anti-austerity, anti-nuclear appeal clearly won over her countrymen—yet at the same time it drove wavering English voters into the arms of the Conservatives. Tory insiders say the difference between the polls and the results can be explained by voters’ fears of an SNP-backed Labour government, fears that handed the Conservatives scores of marginal seats.

The SNP also took seats off the Liberal Democrats, a party that had spent decades steadily building local power bases with skillful protest politics, most notably against the 2003 Iraq invasion. Yet many left-leaning supporters were infuriated when the Lib Dems joined the Tories in government, where they came to symbolize lack of trust in politicians after breaking a high-profile promise not to back rises in university tuition fees. Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister for the past five years, was one of eight Lib Dems to cling on to his seat in Parliament. But he looked close to tears as he quit the party leadership on Friday after the Lib Dems lost 49 seats.

The third leader to resign as results rolled in was Nigel Farage of the U.K. Independence Party. A year ago this jocular figure took UKIP to first place in elections for the European Parliament, upsetting the Labour-Tory duopoly that had lasted a century. His anti-immigration rhetoric divided the right, and two Conservative members of Parliament defected last year to UKIP, so his failure to break into Westminster was sweet revenge for the Tories. Mr. Farage was left demanding electoral reform after UKIP won just one seat, despite garnering four million votes overall. Yet in many ways this election proved the robustness of Britain’s first-past-the-post system, for all its flaws, since it is intended to produce stable one-party majorities.

As Mr. Cameron began piecing together his first all-Conservative cabinet, he promised to lead a government and party of ‘one nation.’ This is a highly resonant phrase in Tory politics, first coined by the great Victorian prime minister Benjamin Disraeli and later used as coded language by centrists to show concern for the poor. It was a phrase Mr. Miliband sought to co-opt to his doomed cause. Yet now it seems even more loaded—a sign of a resurgent prime minister’s intent, but also of his need to hold together a country that looks more divided than ever. This was an extraordinary election, one for the history books, but the final chapters are still to be written.

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