UK Conservatives Win a Stunning Victory

Analysis: What happened and what comes next in the United Kingdom

David Cameron
David Cameron / AP

"It is a victory most Tories could never have dreamed of, and a defeat beyond the nightmares of most of their opponents."

That’s how Owen Jones, a columnist for The Guardian and a supporter of Ed Miliband’s Labour Party reacted to last night’s results. In a stunning victory, David Cameron’s Conservatives won 24 new seats. They now have 331 seats in Parliament, a majority of seven. Miliband has resigned as Labour’s leader. And never have pre-election polls been so wrong. This was Britain’s version of Truman’s shock 1948 presidential win. No one saw it coming.

In the run up to the election, the polls suggested a basic dead heat between Cameron and Miliband. While some expected the Conservatives to win more seats than Labour—and thus have the first chance of forming a coalition government with another party—the Conservatives were expected to lose seats overall. Labour’s abiding hope was that the Conservatives would therefore lack the seats necessary to form a governing coalition. Labour believed they could then step into that vacuum. But very few analysts expected the Conservatives to have any chance of governing outside of a new coalition. Just watch this exchange from the BBC two weeks ago: asserting his pursuit of majority, Cameron meets open disdain.

So why was everyone so stunned?

For three reasons, I think. First, the pollsters failed to account for Conservative voters who were reluctant to give their voting preference over the phone. This seems absurd, but in Britain, conservative voters are often treated with disdain when they make their opinions known. It also seems likely that many who had said they would vote for the UK Independence Party (UKIP) ultimately decided to vote Conservative. In contrast, Miliband’s refusal to support a referendum on the UK’s membership in the European Union cost him dearly. On Europe, his campaign was fundamentally out of touch with the sentiments of the British people.

Second, Labour’s campaign was arrogant. Throughout, Miliband sought to misrepresent Cameron as a man on an ideological conquest to destroy Britain’s holy National Health Service and the rest of the welfare state. Miliband’s criticisms seemed crude and opportunistic at times. Moreover, many Britons—albeit quietly—share Cameron’s perspective on the need for welfare reform. Thus, where Miliband sought to portray the Conservatives as the enemy of the vulnerable poor, Cameron’s welfare proposals earned respect from voters sick of wasteful spending. Faced with the truth of welfare dependency stories like this one and angered at paying high taxes while others live on perpetual benefits, voters decided that Cameron’s philosophy won out.

Third, Miliband was a weak leader. While he performed better than expected during Britain’s short campaign, the Conservatives were able to portray him as a man incapable of national leadership, fostering the belief that, as one commentator put it, Ed Miliband was just a bit weird. Many Conservatives will be sighing in relief that Ed’s brother, David Miliband, didn’t win the Labour Party’s leadership contest in 2010. David, a former British foreign secretary, was regarded as a highly charismatic centrist politician.

Still, this isn’t just about politics, it’s also about policy. Cameron will now have the opportunity to govern without the compromising restraints of a coalition partner. His reforms to welfare—which remains bloated and unaffordable—are likely to be more substantial than in his first term. Cameron may also attempt to meet the two-percent GDP defense spending target that all NATO members sign up to contribute. Until now, Cameron had refused to commit to two percent, fearing that coalition partners might not accept it and that it was unaffordable. Regardless, Cameron’s backbenchers are certain to push hard to make him change his mind. This is a key issue—Cameron’s support on the right wing of his party will take careful management.

But this election has also radically re-shaped Parliament and quite potentially, Britain herself.

The other major story from last night, of course, was Labour’s evisceration in Scotland. After long being the dominant representation of Scotland in Parliament, Labour now holds just one seat north of the English border. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats also each hold one seat. Instead, the separatist left-wing Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) has scored a William Wallace-style populist revolution. Now holding 56 seats (up from six in 2010), the SNP aims to re-energize the Scottish Independence movement and weaken Cameron’s efforts to cut government spending. As James Hargrave, a political operative in London, told me, "These numbers are mad. This is a wipe out."

Cameron will now face two distinct blocs of opposition to his policies: Labour and the SNP. In addition, with the Liberal Democrats now annihilated—down from 57 seats to eight—they also might forge a tacit alliance with Labour. Like Miliband, the Liberal Democrats’ leader, Nick Clegg, fell upon his sword Friday. His party may decide to abandon his centrist sentiments and run for the left.

What comes next?

Well, Cameron’s priorities, especially when it comes to spending and the economy, will be clear. Many Britons chose welfare because they have no incentive not to do so. Work, in short, doesn’t pay. While protecting the most vulnerable in British society—the physically or mentally disabled—Mr. Cameron is likely to impose far stricter regulations on the allowances that other citizens receive from government. His intent will be twofold: to encourage the long term unemployed to seek training or employment and to reduce government spending that feeds economic inactivity. Cameron is aware that Britain’s present productivity deficit must be addressed if the nation is to be able to compete successfully in the global economy. And while the Conservative reforms will raise uproar on the populist left, Cameron knows he won’t achieve fiscal balance without cuts. He has five more years to re-shape Britain for the better.