Thursday

8th Dec 2022

Analysis

Cameron leads divided Britain - but to where?

  • In command. But where will Cameron lead the UK? (Photo: Number 10)

No horse-trading, compromise, or coalition will be needed this time. When a bleary-eyed David Cameron gets behind his desk in 10 Downing Street, his Conservatives will begin to govern the UK alone for the first time in nearly 20 years.

The election result which emerged in the early hours of Friday morning (8 May) confounded all forecasts and made fools of the opinion poll industry.

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Voters on Thursday saw 11 separate polls all putting the Conservatives and Labour in a dead heat.

The official exit poll, released at 10pm, which put the Conservatives 76 seats ahead of Labour, was met with scepticism bordering on disbelief. In the event, the exit poll slightly underestimated the Conservatives’ performance.

Cameron and the Scottish SNP are the two big winners from a campaign that leaves the UK’s political map perhaps more deeply divided than ever before. The SNP dominates Scotland, Labour still have a near monopoly on the major cities in England and Wales, while the Conservatives control the south and the rural constituencies.

Labour party sources have indicated that its leader, Ed Miliband, will resign, possibly on Friday.

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, whose party finished a distant fourth in terms of votes and which will cling on to scarcely 10 seats, is also expected to go.

If Nigel Farage, the leader of the eurosceptic Ukip, fails to win in South Thanet and then makes good on his pre-election promise to resign “within 10 minutes”, Cameron could quickly find himself as the last man standing.

But Cameron’s second premiership could quickly turn into a bed of nails, because of two major constitutional issues that will dominate his new tenure: Scotland and the EU.

Referendums

The next five years will bring at least one, possibly two, referendums.

An ‘in/out’ referendum on the EU in 2017 is now almost certain - a reality that will put EU officials off their coffee and croissants this morning.

Cameron’s negotiating hand will be strengthened by Ukip’s failure to gain more than the tiniest foot-hold in Westminster.

He has a clear mandate to renegotiate the UK’s membership terms, although his first challenge will be to overcome the scepticism of fellow EU leaders towards treaty change.

At the EU summit in March, European Council president Donald Tusk and Cameron debated whether re-negotiation will be “Mission Impossible”.

What will happen next is anybody’s guess.

If Cameron does not get enough EU red meat to satisfy the bulk of his party, it will dramatically increase the chances of a Brexit.

Recent opinion polls suggest that Britons would vote to remain in the EU by a narrow margin, although one lesson from last night’s results is that only fools believe what pollsters say.

SNP surge

Meanwhile, in Scotland, the SNP’s stunning victory piles pressure on Cameron to offer the ‘devolution max’ that pro-union campaigners promised last autumn.

The SNP surge has been widely attributed to a combination of Labour’s collapse and Cameron’s post-Scottish referendum speech, which vowed to restrict the voting rights of Scottish MPs and dismissed the prospect of transferring extra public money from London to Edinburgh.

“The Scottish lion has roared this morning across the country,” said Alex Salmond, the former SNP leader, who took his country to the brink of independence in last September’s referendum.

“It is inconceivable that such a statement of unity by the people of Scotland could be ignored,” he added.

If the new SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, will be disappointed not to have the chance to work with Labour to form an anti-Tory majority, Cameron is widely expected to make an offer that will move the UK towards a more federal structure.

It could involve complete fiscal autonomy and control over all policy areas, barring defence and foreign policy.

Even so, a second referendum on independence before 2020 cannot be ruled out.

In his acceptance speech at his Oxfordshire constituency, Cameron re-stated his determination to hold an EU referendum and hinted that he would make an offer to the Scottish Nationalists within weeks.

“We must reclaim the mantle of ‘one nation’, a belief in one United Kingdom,” he said - the first hint of a more accomodating stance towards Scotland.

On Friday morning, the BBC’s Nick Robinson described the Scottish situation as “the biggest challenge of David Cameron’s career”.

Those close to the prime minister say that he is a old-style, patrician Tory, who does not want to preside over either the UK’s exit from the EU or Scottish secession.

But while he is now more powerful than ever, there are huge question marks over whether one or both of these seismic changes will eventually come to pass.

The stakes for both Britain and the EU couldn't be higher.

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