Few expected a Tory majority until the Exit poll. I didn’t dare hope until about 2am.
In Eastern England, a Region with a bigger population than Scotland, The Tories’ hegemony is greater than that of the SNP’s in Scotland, yet no-one is going to give these voters the indulgence which will be afforded to the SNP. Here, The Tories secured 50% of the vote, and all but one MP. The one non Tory MP was a Tory until less than a year ago. The Labour party lost ground everywhere, except London.
15% of Scots voted Tory, equivalent to the national UKIP share. No-one is talking about their “disenfranchisement”. There are now as many Tory MPs in Scotland as there are Labour or Liberal Democrats. The Tories advanced in Wales and devastated the Liberal Democrats in the South-West.
Looking at a map, Labour is reduced to inner London, Birmingham, Newcastle, Cardiff, Liverpool and Leeds. Scotland is monochrome SNP, and the rest of Great Britain is Tory Blue. The Tories’ closest allies, the Ulster Unionists did twice as well as expected in Northern Ireland.
So. What happens next?
First of all, elections are won by parties with the positive vision for the country. The SNP has a vision of Scotland that resonates with Scots, if not with reality. That 8% deficit limits how “full” their fiscal autonomy can be. I can take Sturgeon at her word, that independence remains off the cards for the time being.
Labour on the other hand, spent the election campaign telling the country it was broke, divided, poor, unequal and some vision of victorian workhouse hell, lorded over by a “rich” elite. Given that inequality fell and “the rich” are paying more tax than ever before over the past 5 years, this clearly didn’t ring true. The Tory message: let us finish the job, resonated with England outside the big cities.
The economy is largely sorted. The coalition undid much of the glue Labour poured into the labour market. The self-employed who paid tax on earnings in 2013/14 paid more than expected. Their earnings will accelerate, and the deficit will close faster than expected. I expect there will be more money for Cameron’s second term.
Cameron’s biggest challenge will therefore be constitutional. What to do with Scotland, giving the SNP as much of their demands as possible, without alienating England. His job is to come up with a lasting constitutional settlement. Constitutional settlements tend to be more lasting and stable when done under Tory governments, as unlike labour’s devolution in the 90’s there’s less short-term gerrymandering for party advantage. This will involve house of Lords reform, though I would regret this. The mountain of cant spoken about English Votes for English Laws comes from people who’ve got used to imposing the will of the Celts on the English, who’ve long voted solidly Tory. It’s likely there will be a more Federal UK. The community of the Isles is being tested more strenuously than at any point since Irish independence.
There will be a lot of nonsense spoken about the upcoming EU referendum, set for 2015. UKIPpers will not believe Cameron will deliver it. They can be ignored. The fact is, the UK will vote by 2:1 to stay in. Cameron will walk tall having secured an unexpected majority. The Eurocrats will have to give something for Cameron to take back, and Merkel has already said what’s on offer.
Whatever the offer is, it will be derided by UKIP because free movement of people is a red line that will not be on offer. And quite rightly so. The crucial reaction will be the Tory right. Will they ‘rebel’ and make Cameron’s life a misery like the post 1992 “bastards”. My guess however is that Cameron has answered his Tory critic’s main charge: that he couldn’t win an election. This will mean this election has more in common with 1979 – the first majority after a period of unstable minority, than 1992, an unexpected victory by the fag-end of an administration.
Labour, for its part, must find a narrative after a period of re-building. They must work out what they are for. If they can make peace with business, and more importantly, markets, then they can come back. Social democracy has a future in the UK, but not Socialism red in tooth and claw. Miliband was in this regard, a last hold-out in the jungle, still fighting after the total victory of Thatcher. Whatever happens, such is the scale of their defeat, especially in Scotland, the next labour PM will probably be beholden to the SNP for any majority.
This is the Second or third time the Tories have destroyed the Liberal party, and absorbed its supporters into the broad Conservative church. Perhaps the Tories should make an offer: Fight elections as the Conservative, Liberal and Unionist party? The liberal democrats had the naive belief that somehow being right, for example on Land taxation by council tax revaluation and extending the number of bands, will somehow translate into votes. There is a place for such a party, and I hope they come back. But this will be a generational project.
Each of these issues will be the subject of a post in the future. We live in interesting times. Cameron has an enormous, difficult and delicate job. He can be the man who either presides over the destruction of the UK, or go down in history as the man who built the lasting constitutional settlement. He’s been underestimated by most. He has an enormous responsibility. But I am optimistic he’s up to the job. After all, he’s been quietly right, calmly ignoring his critics, and content to let his record speak for itself despite the hysteria of lesser characters. He’s steady under fire, to the point of insouciance. I like that in a leader.
Cameron is now proven winner. Holding the coalition together was a remarkable political feat, for which Nick Clegg deserves enormous credit too. And like Napoleon’s generals, Cameron’s lucky. So Far.