Well, that was interesting.
There were people planning to camp outside Downing Street if Cameron didn’t win a majority and tell him to quit. There were articles about Cameron having to be dragged from No. 10. The SNP were planning their anti-Tory coalition. The polls had centred on a precise split of votes. Ed Miliband had carved his pledges in stone. Tory and ex-Tory commentators were betting on a maximum of 290 Tory seats.
Shortly before the polls closed there were rumours circulating that the Tory vote was not where it was expected to be – that people pledging to vote Labour weren’t going to turn out or people had lied about not voting Tory or whatever. The Labour communications machine to supporters got very keen for people to come out – I got two emails seeking urgent help to get the vote out in my constituency (as a result of my participation in Labour’s questionnaire, in case anyone’s wondering) in the final eight hours of the poll.
Then came the first exit poll, predicting 316 Tory seats, an SNP sweep and the Lib-Dems being reduced to merely scraping into two-figures of seat numbers. This was sniggered at. And it was quite wrong.
Around 13:00, after a bitter night of heavy losses for Labour and the Lib-Dems followed by a torrid morning of resignations, the Tories gained an overall majority – the first time they have held such a thing since February 1997. Cameron had no choice but to stay in Downing Street. Aside from the fact that only he could now form a majority Government, the other three leaders of Ofcom’s “major parties” had all fallen on their swords on the spot.
So what does this mean for everyone?
Is now a prime minister with a small majority, all of his own party. Ironically this may be harder to manage than the Coalition. The majority of 12 seats is less than Major secured in 1992 and is reliant on minimal trouble from by-elections. Unless anything goes badly wrong, he will oversee an EU referendum in 2017 and resign sometime in 2019/ 2020, by which point he will have led his party for as long as Margaret Thatcher.
Has stepped down, probably too quickly (written before reading a Guardian leader which agrees). His party is in no state for him to go and he was not that big a failure.
Consider – the party lost Scotland, yes, and lost nearly 50 seats in the process. But Scotland was gone moons before the election. Overall they only lost 26 MPs. Somewhere he picked up 22 seats and an additional 1.5% of the vote. The Government has a very much smaller majority than it had when he was elected leader and would do even if the remaining Lib-Dems had managed to resume a coalition with the Tories. He was popular with several sectors of the electorate, even if he was inclined to be bullied.
The party has just lost one of its major fighters – Ed Balls was turned out of Morley by a 3-figure Tory majority. The Tory candidate last time who reckoned he was removable was quite right. Arguably this time it’s more devastating for the party than it would have been last time. In 2010 Balls was immediately associated with Brown and his departure would have been a bit of a clean-out. Now he’s a – sorry, was a key part of the Labour economic team. He’s given the party weight and depth of feeling. He’s been presented as a man to be trusted. And he’s gone.
The Scottish Labour party has been wiped from the map almost as effectively as the Scottish Tories (each have 1 seat). Any senior figures from Scottish Labour – former cabinet ministers, the election co-ordinator Douglas Alexander, the leader of Scottish Labour – have all gone, leaving a solitary junior MP in a marginal constituency with a 2,637 majority.
At this time the party needs someone to hold it together to oversee a regroup. With the Tories having a very small majority six good by-elections could reduce the five-year term to tatters. There is time to pull them apart then. Miliband, who has grown a bit while in office, might be a good person to do so. Until the Tory majority slides, having a leader would be a good idea – even if he’s not making the sort of proud, reaching-out speeches that supporters were hoping for. Instead he’s made a resignation speech attempting to divide between giving thanks, tub-thumping and taking applause (and showing a lack of grasp that it’s a railway station).
With Ed Balls out, Miliband and his long-standing deputy having both quit and no Scottish MPs for the leadership race, the party is looking more rudderless than the ’97 Tories.
Ed Miliband’s lump of rock
Keep an eye on eBay.
Has concluded that he isn’t as important as he thought he was. It may be daring to suggest to his ego that perhaps he is as important as he thought he was. He may well have had a major impact on the swing of the election.
To the Tories.
Made a very noble resignation speech, just avoiding tears on stage, but is in a bit of a hole.
His party used to be the party of the West of England and the North of Scotland. They still have the Shetlands, though Thurso has lost Thurso. (Yes, the MP for Caithness was John Thurso.) The West of England has gone – remarkably including Labour’s urban heartlands in Plymouth. The most westerly non-Tory MP is now a rather isolated Labour Ben Bradshaw in Exeter.
The surviving total of 8 MPs does not offer much scope for leadership candidates. Simon Hughes, Vince Cable, Danny Alexander, Norman Baker, Jo Swinson and David Laws have all gone. Chris Huhne’s political career was destroyed by a six-month prison term for speeding some years ago. Even Charles Kennedy, elder statesman of the party, has seen his career as a politician on Skye terminated.
There is a case for saying that the party needs a complete refresh – probably around its president, Tim Farron, who has long been spoken of as a Clegg successor (though he may have envisaged having 30 or so more MPs). Another Shetland leader is also a possibility (Orkney & Shetland, all that remains of the Scottish Lib-Dems, was Jo Grimond’s seat). There is also a case for saying that Clegg still has some hatred to absorb and needs to make sure that the party knows what to do with itself before he goes.
But when a party loses 86% of its representation – 49 MPs – in one night it doesn’t really want its ex-leader sitting around trying to pull things together. The other 7 MPs probably won’t admit it, but right now they hate his guts. They know he was right to form a coalition with the Tories and that posterity will be kind to the party for trying what they said they always wanted to do – and for trying to change the constitution while they were there. And they will hate him all the more for it.
The Independent points out that the party can’t do a by-election just now (aside from anything else the confidence to face the electorate again won’t be there, particularly with rumours that he only got back because the local Tory voters wanted him for a now-unnecessary second coalition), so he can’t quit. He’ll have to be a constituency MP for a while. Lib-Dem and Liberal leaders have not always shown a rush to quit the Commons and he may well wish to remain on his party’s back benches as the elder statesman.
For now he can be the living embodiment of the old truism that “all political careers end in failure”.
Scottish Unionism generally
The Tories would probably be best advised to split off the Unionist party in Scotland again (John Buchan was a notable MP for them) and allow them to fight as a centre-right pro-union party with inclinations towards the Conservatives in a semi-permanent union – the sort of thing Sturgeon wanted to have with Miliband, but won’t get.
In the interim, the Unionist parties – who are now less popular in absolute numbers of seats than the Unionist parties in divided Ireland – may wish to follow some old Liberal ideas for saving money in terms of shared conference space:
Stromeferry Conference Centre. Very convenient for the railway station and ferry terminal (no ferry).
Is being slippery, as usual. He promised to quit the UKIP leadership if he didn’t win South Thanet – and when at half 10 this morning the Tories held it he promptly quit.
He is of course still a prominent UKIP Member of the European Parliament and is considering standing in the ensuing leadership contest. Well, so much for that pledge.
But he’s made his impact. His fighting for an EU referendum has aided the election of a party committed to an EU referendum. Even if he never returns to front-line politics, this will make a remarkable place in the history books.
The Scottish National Party
May stay powerful, but may have overstretched itself.
Nicola Sturgeon was always onto a winner, with the pro-independence vote inevitably going to stick with the SNP for the far less dramatic policy of taking Gordon Brown’s old seat – the crown of forcing an ex-Prime Minister to give a speech of defeat being snatched away by Brown’s decision long ago to stand down anyway.
However, there appeared to be a lot of campaigning to vote SNP and essentially get a Labour Government with a Scottish heart. The Tories pointed out to English voters that this would mean giving a lot of “English” money to Scotland. This very successful approach also deprived Labour of almost all of its Scottish seats, its own ability to represent Scotland and much of its confidence.
It would not be a difficult sell to argue to Scottish voters that by voting SNP they got themselves a Tory government. Usually these “vote popular x, get hated y” campaigns are very hard to sell. Maybe not in Scotland in 2020. Sturgeon needs the Tories to do pro-Scottish policies so she can claim to be influencing the UK Government. At the moment, the Tories are threatening a boundary redraw and to make the Scottish Parliament responsible for setting its taxation levels. The former may be uncontroversial in Scotland, where the Tories will struggle to create more seats (in 1994 the late Guardian sketchwriter Simon Hoggart was already giggling at the difficulty of preserving the few remaining breeding grounds for Scottish Tories); the latter won’t do much for SNP popularity if they start funding their wonder policies with increased taxes, particularly as Cameron can respond to complaints by pointing out that the SNP spent last autumn fighting for the right to raise Scottish taxes as much as they want.
With the Labour wipe-out the Tories have as good an opportunity to make a come-back in Scotland as Labour – in fact better, as 56 Scottish constituencies now have the SNP as their incumbent left-wing party and may, if Sturgeon handles the next five years right, see no need for another one.
Another reason for suggesting that the Tories might start to do better in Scotland again is that they are doing rather well in Wales. No Valleys seats, but otherwise they’ve squeezed three seats out of Labour and the Lib-Dems. While Labour still have over half the seats in Wales, the Tories are not far short of half as many as Labour.
The loss of Gower was probably justification in itself for Miliband quitting.
Despite (or perhaps because of) their tenure in coalition in Wales, Plaid is showing no signs of a major Westminster breakthrough any time soon.
Will be remarkably stable, with all four Great Offices of State remaining as before. Three of them will be occupied by the people who held them after the 2010 election (Cameron as Prime Minister, Osborne as Chancellor and May at the Home Office; Hammond came to the Foreign Office more recently). This is practically unprecedented, but good to see in many ways.
Would be nice if the Transport team didn’t change too much, though McLoughlin, Perry or both may be considered overdue for promotions.
I am not sure I would bet on a 12-seat majority Government surviving the course, though it did take a lot of by-elections to almost topple John Major’s government. Several of Cameron’s team are familiar with that period and are aware they will have to be careful what they put before Parliament.
The European Union
Presuming it is still around in 2017, there will be a referendum. Cameron wants to stay in on revised terms.
There is not much that can really be said except for the fact that a man who has led his party from disliked semi-irrelevance to a majority government dividing opinion on and for its effectiveness in ten years should be able to pull off the small matter of reforming the EU in his image. “The impossible we do at once; miracles take a little longer.”
The EU top brass cannot afford to be seen to back down, but behind the scenes may be more amiable to an apparently hard-fought treaty revision. If Southern European economies don’t start picking up it may be desirable to stop their workforces walking out for work elsewhere. Meanwhile the UK is a growing economy with zero inflation just now and therefore too valuable to lose.
Seem to consider themselves the most hard done-by people today – after five years of telling Mr Miliband he might be able to pull things together and win, they have suddenly been confronted by the possibility that the people they have been polling since 2010 have been lying to them. With even the exit poll being outside the 3% margin of error (3% on 300 seats is 9 seats; the Tories are 15 seats up on that) and every other election poll being utter nonsense, a lot of voters seem to have persisted in being economical on stating their voting intentions in every circumstance except the ballot booth. Unfortunately for the pollsters, this is the right of the voter.
It may be that after over 300 years of Tory governments and policies, the voters are happy to vote Tory on minimal advertising on the basis that they must be standing and you know what you’re getting with a Tory Government.
Decided back in January that the Tories stood about a 15% chance of winning a majority (in a series of low-probability speculations). The party held its nerve, the economy did not collapse, UKIP lost one of their MPs and the Labour leader quit before his party could put him in the toaster.
Unfortunately the prediction was too vague to claim any credit and gave more backing to a Labour majority or “Confidence & Supply”. Now nobody will know what 5 years of confidence and supply means.
Next time I won’t come out hard for my quiet hunch of a Tory majority, which I remember very quietly discussing with a friend in February, since it’ll only invoke Sod’s Law and it was in any event a very optimistic and baseless quiet hunch.
Having got this far, why not visit the charming constituency of St Ives, last to declare in this election?
Or, if St Ives is the wrong end of the country, how about a tour of the constituency of Ross, Skye and Lochaber to better understand the challenges faced by the rebuilders of the Lib-Dems?
(Certain parts of this constituency are not accessible by road.)
Or perhaps Brighton, to see how the Greens are progressing?
Meanwhile, if you’re completely depressed by the election result, the Guardian has reasons to be cheerful. There is no balancing Torygraph link, as the paper seems to consider the result speaks for itself – and has brought a certain election poster up again.