When we began organising our View from the Bridge event ‘General Election 2015: Where do we go from here?’ several weeks before 7th May we envisaged a discussion speculating on the likely outcomes of coalition negotiations.
Pre-May 7th few commentators would have predicted that the debate would instead be examining the implications of a Conservative majority and the SNP’s landslide victory in Scotland and influence in Westminster. The exception being our panellist Brian Wilson, former Labour cabinet minister, who was not at all surprised by the result! His take on events, that coalitions are the exception, not a new rule, led him to conclude that the electorate had voted for the party that looked most like ‘winners’.
Rather than a vote of confidence in the Conservative Party, he saw Cameron’s victory as a mark of electoral caution: voting for the less risky option in the face of a lacklustre alternative offering.
Robert Coles, Investment Editor at Thomson Reuters’ breakingviews broadly agreed and felt the unexpected result was because people wanted to play it safe, feeling cautious about the state of the economy. Labour did badly mostly as a result of the electorate’s risk adverse attitude and the Lib Dems suffered catastrophically because UKIP has become the protest party de jour. However he cautioned that the small majority means David Cameron will need to look to the lessons of history and note the problems suffered by the last Conservative Prime Minister to have a small majority, John Major, whose 1992 victory was marred by intense in-fighting, mainly over Europe.
The panel warned that Europe, ‘English votes for English laws’ and jostling over who is to succeed David Cameron (after his stated desire to stand-down at the end of this Parliament) could be the touch points that create similar tension within this Conservative Government.
Francis Elliott, political editor of The Times and biographer of David Cameron, speculated that the PM will likely pass over the leadership mantle immediately after the EU Referendum. But, as Brian Wilson pointed out, the debate over the UK’s future in the EU is one that Cameron is going to want to conclude as quickly as possible to avoid Eurosceptic Tories damaging the party, as they did under the Major administration.
Looking to the EU Referendum, Robert Coles believes a Brexit is entirely possible but doesn’t think the wheels of the UK economy will fall off if the UK does decide to leave. He pointed out that the UK isn’t in the Eurozone so the economic fall-out of Brexit would be less intense. He believes that London’s position as Europe’s financial centre will continue regardless, but he believes that David Cameron woke up on 8th May and thought he needed to get more pro-Europe.
Francis Elliott surmised that if the succession and the EU Referendum are successfully handled and the Conservatives manage to erase the toxic image of being a party of austerity and the rich, there is a good chance we will have a Conservative majority government after the current term. However he warned that ‘English votes for English laws’ would be “a huge mistake,” because it wasn’t a “substantive issue at present” but going down this route means “the Union is lost.”
As for the striking success of the SNP in Scotland, Brian Wilson suggested that people were not voting on social or economic lines, but for something entirely different. In his view the establishment of the Scottish Parliament helped the SNP thrive, and coupled with the Scottish Referendum a strong platform for nationalism has been well established, but that doesn’t mean the Scots are voting for independence. He claimed that poor leadership within the Scottish Labour Party also helped the rise of the SNP and he stated that he sees no logical stopping point to their power. He speculated that the SNP will squeeze out as many powers from Westminster as possible, pushing beyond devo-max and warned other politicians that the SNP was an “irrational force”.
The panel concluded that the UK’s political landscape has dramatically changed and Labour face a significant challenge in turning around their fortunes and looking like ‘winners.’ Asked about a new leader for the party Brian Wilson commented, “If the new Labour leader looks like a loser he/she will be a loser.” Could that have been Ed Miliband’s problem from day one? However, David Cameron’s victory doesn’t come without a price. The newly re-elected PM faces a number of huge challenges: to convince the electorate that his Party will defend ‘normal’ working people; to manage Eurosceptic backbenchers and keep them in-line to protect the minority; and to unify a fragmented country where localism and nationalism are strengthening.
Despite the election of a majority government, the future looks anything but certain.