The Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron appeared to have won a surprise victory in the British election Friday after a night of disastrous results for the left-of-center Labour and Liberal Democratic parties. While the Conservatives remained 13 seats short of the House of Commons majority they need to govern, the party is expected to pass the necessary threshold as the remaining results come in. If Cameron falls short of an overall majority in Parliament, he would be forced to govern as a minority or build a second coalition government.
One clear result was the triumph of the Scottish National Party (SNP), following last year’s close-fought referendum on independence. The SNP was on track to wipe out traditional Labour seats in Scotland, renewing an existential threat to the 300-year-old union. In England, Cameron’s Conservatives appeared to have fought off their own nationalist rivals from the U.K. Independence Party with an increasingly hostile approach to the European Union and a promise of “English votes for English laws” in Parliament. The twin moves towards Scottish nationalism and English-only votes raise profound questions about whether the U.K. will be left with any national Parliament.
The splintering of the union, along with further separation from the EU, comes after several years of budget austerity that has reduced the U.K.’s role on the world stage. Cameron has promised a referendum by 2017 on whether the U.K. should remain inside the EU.
Cameron’s robust showing – along with Labour’s sharp decline in Scotland – were not predicted by opinion polls after a month-long election campaign that was at best lackluster and at worst relentlessly negative. Rather, the polls suggested a tied result, with the voters generally unimpressed by either Cameron or his Labour rival Ed Miliband. Now Miliband appears to be headed for a swift resignation before his party plunges into a rapid contest to determine who will lead the opposition party in Westminster.
Cameron’s current coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats, appear to have paid a steep price for running simultaneously to the left and right of every other major party. A minority or second coalition government under Cameron is a rare event in the U.K.
Coalitions might be fine in exotically idealistic democracies like Germany and Israel. But in British politics, this just isn’t cricket. Prime ministers govern in the name of the Crown, which means almost complete legislative and executive power. If the PM loses a major vote in Parliament, he or she loses 10 Downing Street.
His or her budget is simply untouchable. The president of the United States may be the most powerful office in the world, but nobody in Congress takes the president’s budget very seriously. Minority governments, ruling with the support of smaller parties, are by their very nature risky propositions.
Cameron’s victory represents a rare defeat for David Axelrod, the former strategist for President Obama, who (in addition to being an msnbc analyst) was a consultant to Labour’s Ed Miliband. Cameron himself drew on occasional advice from another Obama adviser, former campaign manager Jim Messina.
However, there is little parallel between U.S. and U.K. politics in this election. Cameron was accused of plotting to undermine the beloved National Health Service, while Miliband was supposedly going to drive the economy into bankruptcy. Along the way, the British press reverted to its partisan roots. Cameron was a high-class toff who only looked after his wealthy pals. Miliband was Red Ed, a throwback to the Marxist union agitators who halted work in Britain’s factories in 1979.
In reality, this election was defined less by political tactics than the post-recession malaise affecting most of western politics.
Trust in institutions, including political parties, is at historic lows. There is deep economic insecurity after the devastating unemployment that followed the financial crisis. Nationalist politicians are on the rise across Europe, just as nativist politics have intensified in the U.S. making immigration reform harder to achieve. On the international stage, the old powers seem less in command of world events.
During Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential election, his campaign manager James Carville distilled the voters’ choice into six words: Change versus more of the same. Three decades later, the British voters in 2015 have contrived to vote for both at the same time.