After months of predictions from politicians of all parties, media pundits and academic experts that the UK was heading for its second consecutive hung parliament, the voters delivered a truly stunning verdict.
An exit poll released when the polls closed predicted a result no-one had seen coming: an increased number of Conservative MPs, a nationalist sweep in Scotland and a disappointing Labour return, ruling the left out of government. And, despite initial scepticism from almost all observers, it turned out to be right on the money.
There was to be no complex wrangling over coalitions and no minority government, as had been expected for months. Instead, David Cameron’s Conservative Party defied all predictions to win an outright parliamentary majority, securing 331 out of 650 seats. The main opposition, the Labour party, was left with just 232.
This is a shock on a par with the 1992 general election, when the Conservatives snatched victory from the jaws of defeat – or at least, a hung parliament – with a sudden late shift in support.
But above all, this is a triumph for David Cameron.
Cameron entered government in 2010 having failed to secure a majority of seats in parliament. That meant he was forced to form a coalition with the centrist Liberal Democrats. His administration took power during a nightmarish financial crisis: the former governor of the Bank of England warned that whoever took office could be out of power for a generation because of the severity of the austerity measures it would need to implement.
The Tories were also soon confronted with a major electoral threat in the form of the right-wing United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which seemed primed to steal crucial Tory votes in marginal seats. It seemed to be an impossible situation.
Instead, Cameron’s Conservatives have become the first incumbent governing party since 1983 to increase their share of parliamentary seats.
The election was a disaster for Labour, which had hoped to form at least a minority government, and an outright catastrophe for the Conservatives’ partners in coalition, the Liberal Democrats.
The roots of Labour’s defeat can be traced back to 2010, when the party chose Ed Miliband as its leader. Forgoing his slicker, better-known brother David, it apparently bought into the younger Miliband’s soft-left strategy of opposing the coalition’s austerity policies, on the assumption it would fail and become wildly unpopular among voters.
Ultimately, Miliband’s Labour party failed to offer a convincing narrative of its economic mistakes in government before 2010. Instead, Labour activists and trade unionists wanted a return to core Labour values and left-leaning policies after the centrism of the 1990s and 2000s. It turned out that the electorate did not.
Labour’s disastrous results in Scotland, where it lost all but one of its seats, compounded its problems but did not cause them. Even if it had retained all its Scottish seats, Labour would still have lost the election.
As for the Liberal Democrats, their pitiful return is a damning indictment of now-ex-leader Nick Clegg’s decision to join a coalition with the Conservatives in 2010. That decision has turned out to be a strategic blunder of historic proportions.
The Lib Dems’ political stock began tanking as soon as they went into coalition. Having presented themselves as a centre-left party since at least the mid-1990s, it was wrenching in the extreme for the Lib Dems to suddenly join a centre-right coalition, and clearly, their base vote evaporated in response.
They have now lost all but eight of their 57 seats, rewinding them to a level of parliamentary representation not seen since the 1970s – and most of their heavyweight talents have been scalped. Having been in power for five years, the party will now struggle to survive as a relevant political force.
Get in line
The Conservatives will bask in the glow of victory, achieved against the odds. However, while the task of forming a government will now be much simpler than anyone predicted, the process of governing will not be easy.
Their majority is razor-thin and could easily be lost with just a few by-election defeats, as happened to John Major’s government in the 1990s. The opposition parties, soon to be under new leadership, will seize any opportunity they can to inflict defeats on the government. Today’s Conservatives may one day need to strike a deal with Northern Irish unionists to maintain their hold on power, just as Major did.
Let’s not forget that, unlike previous prime ministers, Cameron will not be able to call an early election at a convenient time, unless he changes the law and abandons the Fixed-term Parliaments Act – which his government introduced.
In the sharply divided House of Commons created by this election, party management will be crucial. Cameron will face difficulties with his own backbenchers; they have been rebellious in the past five years – and there’s no reason to suppose things will change now. They will expect Cameron to show them more consideration now he no longer has to make compromises with the Liberal Democrats.
In particular, the promised in/out referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU could badly split the Conservative Party if Cameron campaigns for a vote to remain in the EU while many of his backbenchers – and some frontbenchers – campaign for a “Brexit”. It could yet destroy his premiership prematurely.
North of the border
The other major challenge facing the new government is the question of Scotland. All but three of Scotland’s 59 parliamentary seats have fallen to the Scottish nationalists in a landslide, giving a separatist party a mandate to speak for practically all of one of the UK’s four constituent countries.
If they win the elections for the Scottish parliament in 2016, the SNP may well seek a second independence referendum. Cameron will find it hard to resist that demand, and a second “indyref” could prove much harder for the unionists to win than the 2014 vote was.
If Scottish independence were the result, the Conservatives would not be blameless. Their success in this election clearly relied in part on scaring English voters about the prospect of a Labour government dependent on the SNP’s support, in exchange for damaging concessions.
So it is by no means certain that the UK will remain intact by the next scheduled election in 2020. The future constitution and makeup of the UK and its position in the EU are huge political unknowns; they are about to be addressed under a government with a dangerously slim majority in parliament – and only one seat in Scotland.
So the Conservatives are celebrating their victory now – but the prospect of trouble ahead is ominous in the extreme.