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 House of Commons majority - not even the most optimistic of Conservatives dared to forecast this – and the Scottish Nationalists holding all the aces after Nicola Sturgeon’s party swept the board north of the border.
This could be a very shortlived and hollow ‘victory’, despite the result being a common sense endorsement of Conservative values. Even though the soul-searching now taking place within the Labour and Lib Dem ranks will buy some vital time for the Conservatives after they became the first governing party to increase their share of the vote since Margaret Thatcher’s Tories in 1983, the Prime Minister already faces a race against time to assert his authority and show he can lead a strong, and purposeful, government when he has already said that he will not seek a third term,
Tone will be important. 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, with his Tory and Lib Dem coalition having lost its majority, he will have to become more of a negotiator in the days, weeks and months ahead.
Significantly he signalled a return to ‘One Nation’ values in his acceptance speech in Witney.
He has to acknowledge the result in Scotland and the potential constitutional ramifications of the revolution which took place - the seismic shift to the SNP was illustrated by Labour’s campaign co-ordinator Douglas Alexander, one of the more thoughtful politicians, losing his previously safe Paisley seat to a 20-year-old university student.
Mr Cameron’s problem with the Scots is one of legitimacy in the wake of the SNP revolution. 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 11th hour because they feared a Labour and SNP stitch-up that had the potential to derail the still fragile economic recovery.
One of his first acts must be to devolve the full powers of autonomy demanded by the Leeds and Sheffield city-regions – this move 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 simply spooked by the prospect of an anti-austerity alliance involving the SNP and Labour.
It will be critically important that he forms a government which can drive forward nurture private sector investment while also implementing the next tranche of cuts to the public sector, not least on the contentious issue of welfare reform. However an alliance with the Unionist parties from Northern Ireland may not be the answer because of its destabilising effect on the peace process.
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 the North.
The same cannot be said for Labour which is now paying the price for Ed Miliband’s decision to concede the political centre ground in order to appease his trade union backers and core supporters. He cannot survive as leader – despite exceeding expectations on the campaign trail – and will live to regret his abject 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.
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 looks inevitable in spite of his re-election in Sheffield Hallam, with party president Tim Farron taking the helm. Mr Clegg was the right man at the wrong time.
And then there is Ukip. They are here to stay and 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 work overtime to ensure the Tories honour their pledge to hold an early referendum on Britain’s future membership of the European Union.
Like Scotland, the divisive issue of Europe will also 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 on the back of a resurgent economy. If not, confidence in his leadership is likely to ebb away sooner rather than later. His position is that fragile, and comparable to John Major in 1992 who could not govern with a 21-seat majority which was soon whittled away following a series of damaging by-election losses.
In the irony of ironies, Mr Cameron was an eye-witness to this – he was an adviser to Norman Lamont, the then Chancellor, when Britain’s exit from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism provided catastrophic to Tory fortunes and left the party in the electoral wilderness for 13 years.
Far from congratulating David Cameron on being returned to 10 Downing Street, commiserations might be the order of the day after this most polarising and perplexing of elections changed the face of politics and left the United Kingdom at breaking point.