The polls were horribly wrong. The closest election for years proved nothing of the kind. David Cameron is back in Downing Street with a 15 seat parliamentary majority. Three of the seven party leaders who took part in the leaders TV debate resigned on Friday. Cameron and the Tories appear utterly in command. Yet that command may prove less enduring as the years unfold. Here are my thoughts three days after the most unpredictable election since 1992.
David Cameron’s majority has shrunk, not increased
The Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition had a majority of 76 in the House of Commons. It ensured a relatively smooth ride over its five year term. True, the two parties had their fractious moments, especially over the voting reform referendum, which the Tories torpedoed. But the coalition proved far more stable than anyone expected in 2010.
Cameron now has a smaller majority than John Major secured in April 1992. Major also secured a famous victory against expectations. Yet within months the glory turned to dust. Major never recovered from Britain’s ejection from the European exchange rate mechanism five months after the election. His government tottered from one disaster to another. And it was held hostage by right wingers who hated the European Union. David Cameron has made a costly promise to transform Britain’s deal with the EU, followed by a referendum on whether we should leave the EU. The next two years are likely to be dominated by divisions over Europe – exactly the issue that helped destroy Major’s administration.
Coalitions are lethal for smaller parties
Pity the Liberal Democrats. They gave Britain five years of stable government after the hung parliament of 2010. They moderated the Tories. Yet they have been all but destroyed by it.
Perhaps they were too easily tempted by the excitement of government after 65 years in the wilderness. Maybe they failed to think through how badly the u-turn on tuition fees would damage their reputation. I blogged in 2011 that the Lib Dems needed an assertiveness course:
Above all, the Lib Dem leaders seem far too comfortable in their ministerial limos and offices, and far too little concerned about the catastrophic rush to slash and burn public services. Small wonder we hate and distrust politicians when all three main UK parties rushed to reassure us during the election that services wouldn’t be axed right left and centre. Now, we face the mad axemen and the usual pointless, expensive reorganisations. We see a government in disarray, acting as arms seller to Middle East dictators while trying to talk up democracy in the region; trying to flog off England’s forests to the highest bidder while pretending to be green; and generally getting many other things so badly wrong.
It’s not too late for the Lib Dems. The next few years will be tough but if they start asserting themselves, they stand a chance of avoiding oblivion in 2015. And Britain would be a slightly better place to live as a result.
Clearly none of that happened, which is why respected Liberal Democrat MPs are now looking for new careers.
The Lib Dems faced an impossible dilemma in the 2015 election: support or rubbish the record of the government they were part of. Oblivion was perhaps inevitable.
Britain could be out of Europe in three years
There will be a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU in the next two years. The right wing press will use every opportunity to poison the public against the EU, unlike in 1975. David Cameron will fail to win any significant changes to our membership, adding ammunition to those anti-EU forces. The British public has no great affection for the EU so there has to be a strong possibility that the English vote to leave. That prospect will give the SNP and Plaid Cymru a platform to demand a condition that all the home nations have to vote to leave. If Cameron refuses, we can expect a second Scottish independence referendum with a very different result. As before, the Tories are playing fast and loose with the union.
Labour must choose a new Blair
Ed Miliband has a good election campaign. But, as I blogged last year, he was a poor choice as leader. He is the ultimate political insider. He has never known a life outside politics. He disastrously thought he could disassociate himself from 13 years of New Labour. That approach destroyed him in the Question Time debate the week before the election when he failed to defend the deficit that Labour ran up bailing out the banks. Long before that, he floundered in interviews, parroting answers repeatedly rather than making a compelling case.
I was disappointed by Tony Blair’s record in government. His lust to take Britain to war culminated in the catastrophe of the Iraq war. His inability to tame Gordon Brown was almost equally damaging (although Brown deserves credit for standing firm against the euro). And he never used those commanding majorities to create a new, progressive Britain – a tragic lost opportunity. But he understood that Labour had to have mass appeal rather than relying on a rapidly shrinking core vote. Ed Miliband didn’t get this. True, Blair didn’t face a rampant SNP, and arguably helped create the nationalist threat through the devolution settlement. But he was a popular and charismatic leader in a way Brown and Miliband never could be.
If Labour is to bounce back, it has to find a new generation leader. It’s hard to see Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper making any difference. It’s a shame that Dan Jarvis has ruled out standing for leader, as he has the background to secure respect and authority beyond Labour ranks as a former army commander. The party has to have a debate about the future rather than simply anointing a new leader as when Gordon Brown was crowned in 2007.
Britain must become a federal state
The biggest priority of the new government must be to secure the union. There’s little doubt that the Tory emphasis of the alleged danger of a Labour/SNP alliance had an impact. Yet it secured extra Tory seats at the cost of threatening the union. The new Cameron government must take a less partisan approach. Some kind of federalism is inevitable although England’s dominant size makes this more challenging. Offering Scotland full fiscal authority, so the country has the right to tax and spend whatever it wants, has the advantage that it will be forced to spend within its means. No more subsidy from the rest of the UK.
Human rights are being undermined in Tory Britain
Sadly, human rights are not a priority for modern politicians. Given all the challenges facing the new government, it is appalling that Cameron sees abolishing the Human Rights Act as a priority. (It’s bad enough that he’s even thinking of abolition.) This is an example of the stupid party at work. The 1998 Act incorporated the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) into UK law. It meant that British courts could decide on cases rather than people going to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
Britain played a crucial role in creating the ECHR after the second world war. It has nothing to do with the EU, although dim Tories assume it is an EU institution. Abolition would be a futile act, akin to a hormonal teenager smashing up a bus shelter. But it also says volumes about a generation of immature Tory and Labour politicians playing to the Daily Mail gallery and sacrificing fundamental decency and common sense.