MOST prime ministers are afforded a honeymoon period when they are elected to 10 Downing Street. Not David Cameron. For, in many respects, it is the Tory leader’s misfortune that he is being returned to office in unique circumstances which leave England and Scotland on a collision course that threatens the future stability of the United Kingdom.
Having breathed a huge sigh of relief when the Scots narrowly rejected independence last September, Mr Cameron finds himself with an unexpected Commons majority – and the Scottish Nationalists on the march after Nicola Sturgeon’s party swept the board north of the border.
This could be a very shortlived “victory”, despite the result being a common sense endorsement of Conservative values and one that marks the pinnacle of Mr Cameron’s career. Even though the soul-searching now taking place within the Labour, Lib Dem and Ukip ranks following the resignations of Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage respectively will buy some vital time for the Conservatives after a history-defying success saw them become the first governing party to increase their share of the vote since Margaret Thatcher’s Tories in 1983, the Prime Minister faces a race against time to show he can lead a strong, and purposeful, government.
Tone will be important and Mr Cameron promised on the steps of 10 Downing Street to be more respectful. He can no longer blame the Lib Dems for being unable to act. And, after a confrontational election campaign that stoked nationalism on both sides of Hadrian’s Wall, Mr Cameron will need to become far more conciliatory and statesmanlike – an approach which could benefit politics per se.
He does not enjoy the type of tub-thumping majority that Mrs Thatcher and Tony Blair enjoyed. And he has to acknowledge the result in Scotland – the seismic shift to the SNP was illustrated by Labour’s campaign co-ordinator Douglas Alexander losing his previously impregnable Paisley seat to a 20-year-old university student still to complete her final year exams.
Mr Cameron’s problem with the Scots is one of legitimacy in the wake of the SNP landslide – his welcome promise to return to One Nation values is slightly hollow given that the Tories have just a token MP in Scotland (as do Labour and the Lib Dems).
Nick Clegg was right to highlight this in his dignified resignation speech when he warned that grievance and fear must not be allowed to drive communities apart.
Equally the PM cannot afford to favour the Scots over the English and, specifically, those voters who put their faith in the Tories at the eleventh hour because they feared a Labour and SNP stitch-up that had the potential to derail the still fragile economic recovery. The rebellious Eurosceptics on his backbenches will not be afraid to maximise their influence, given the wafer-thin Commons majority.
One of Mr Cameron’s first acts should be to devolve the autonomy demanded by the Leeds and Sheffield city regions – this will also underpin Mr Cameron’s desire for growth and prosperity in the North to outperform the rest of the UK in the next Parliament. Yorkshire voters will be mutinous if they find themselves playing second fiddle to the Scottish Nationalists.
In this regard, the economy remains Mr Cameron’s trump card and he is in debt to George Osborne’s shrewd stewardship of the Treasury – Britain is a conservative country by instinct and voters were clearly spooked by the prospect of an anti-austerity alliance.
It will be critically important that he forms a government which can drive forward and nurture private sector investment while also implementing the next tranche of cuts to the public sector, not least on welfare reform.
At least Mr Cameron has won the economic argument – even though the Tory successes were predominantly in the South, and at the expense of the Lib Dems, rather than across the North.
The same cannot be said for Labour which is now paying a desperate price for Ed Miliband’s decision to concede the political centre ground in order to appease his trade union backers and core supporters. He had to resign – despite exceeding expectations on the campaign trail – and will live to regret his failure to apologise for the party’s failure to control the public finances.
The defeat of Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls in Morley and Outwood illustrated the scale of Labour’s reverse; the party fared little better than Michael Foot in 1983 and this was the equivalent of Michael Portillo’s defeat in 1997. Yet Mr Miliband’s valedictory concession speech suggested that Labour is still in denial over spending.
As for the Lib Dems, they have paid an extraordinarily heavy price for Nick Clegg’s decision to take his party into government five years ago. They deserved better than this and will, inevitably, think twice about being a junior partner in any future government It will hurt that they’ve now been supplanted by the SNP as the third party in politics and the Deputy Prime Minister’s resignation was inevitable in spite of his re-election in Sheffield Hallam. History will show that Mr Clegg, extraordinarily dignified yesterday as he made a passionate defence of liberalism, was the right man at the wrong time.
And then there is Ukip. They will now be looking to consolidate their strong showing across the North. Although their share of the vote was not reflected in seats gained, they will be using this momentum to ensure the Tories honour their pledge to hold an early referendum on future membership of the European Union.
Like Scotland, Europe also has the potential to make or break the premier’s reputation. If he can make the right calls, he has the chance to lead Britain to a new era of prosperity. If not, confidence in his leadership is likely to ebb away in a manner comparable to the disintegration of John Major’s government when the Tories pressed the self-destruct button in the 1990s.
Far from congratulating Mr Cameron on being returned to 10 Downing Street, commiserations might be the order of the day after this most polarising and perplexing of elections left three party leaders looking for new jobs and the surprise victor already waging a new battle of Britain for the heart and soul of the United Kingdom.