Who would have predicted that? I would like to claim prescience, and might at least suggest I thought the Tories would out-perform the polls – “I expect a surprise mini-swing to the Conservatives which may allow them to cobble together a wafer-thin majority with the Liberal Democrats,” I wrote, but in the event the Tories actually have a wafer-thin majority without Nick Clegg’s party. Indeed, what everyone seems to have missed is the extent to which the Liberal Democrats would fall: their reduction to just eight MPs – to list them in full just because I can, John Pugh (maj. 1322), Greg Mulholland (2907), Alistair Carmichael (817), Tom Brake (1510), Clegg (2353), Norman Lamb (4043), Tim Farron (8949), and Mark Williams (3067) – has powered the Tory dash across the line.
A left-winger might be tempted to feel some satisfaction at this whipping of the treacherous ‘Liberals’. This is foolish: Clegg made a huge mistake in 2010 (whatever guff we continue to hear about the national interest back then), but his party did not deserve in recompense a stiffing by the very Coalition partner they have propped up for five long, gruelling years. One of my two eternal verities of British politics from that previous post – never write off the Tories – has been proven as potent as ever in the party’s ruthless pursuit of yellow seats.
So, too, however, has my second: never underestimate the capacity of the Labour Party to alienate its allies. In Scotland, a generation of errors has resulted in wipe-out; in the south of England, and whilst Liberal Democrat voters did swing by ten per cent to a Labour campaign that had contempt for Clegg, it did not bring Miliband many seats; in the north and the Midlands, the long-ignored white working-class constituency broke for UKIP, ensuring the Tory vote stayed steady enough to hold on in even the most marginal of marginals, such as Warwickshire North. The social democratic majority Miliband and Stewart Wood thought they could construct has been repelled by their advances. Labour has won seats in London and actually modestly increased its share of the vote in England; but it has failed to win seats, and that is the game.
That means two things: first, that strategically the Tories did something right; and secondly, electoral reform remains necessary but, due to the scale of Tory success, is more distant now than yesterday – regardless of the strange bedfellows on this matter UKIP and the Liberal Democrats now seem to be. Let’s talk strategy: Lynton Crosby has got a lot of stick during this campaign, including from me, but his anodyne air war – which seems to have been effective at least in defining a narrative which worried many about the mess a Labour minority government would represent – seems to have hidden an astute, if cynical, target seat strategy. In the south east, for example, nothing changed – except that every Lib Dem seat went blue. This is not a Tory rout so much as a Lib Dem and Labour collapse; the Tory strategy was to create the environment for this – Scottish anger, Coalition blowback – and control the bleed of UKIP voters to the right. It worked, better than I suspect even George Osborne thought it might.
That leaves Labour facing five terrible years: in the north, UKIP are chewing up their vote, and in its Deputy Leader, Paul Nuttall, may have a successor to the half-resigned Nigel Farage who can extend UKIP beyond the south-east. In Scotland, this election is epoch-making: Scottish Labour has haemorrhaged its big beasts and has an anaemic talent base beneath them. And the Tories, of course, have won England decisively, with about 40% of the popular vote. That puts David Cameron in particular in an unassailable position, and – following his centrist pose on the steps of Downing Street this morning – during which speech he thanked Clegg, paid generous tribute to Miliband, and promised homes, jobs and devomax – he will use the EU referendum to keep his backbenchers on the right quiet for the first twelve months of this government. Though Labour will want to have a quick leadership election in an attempt to avoid the same six-month breathing room Cameron had in 2010, the Tory leader will during this period have a good chance of defining the terms of this Parliament, too, before stepping down after 2017.
The one important question which might prevent Cameron having it quite this easy (and his policy in-tray, from Scotland to the EU, should not be easy to deal with) is Labour’s relationship with the SNP: there will be a temptation further to demonise the SNP, who have driven down Labour’s share of the Scottish vote to 1918 levels; but common cause is now essential, both to Labour’s future in Scotland and the UK’s wider politics at Westminster. Labour has lost very many MPs on its right – Alexander, Murphy, Currie and even Balls, whose attraction to austerity was always greater than Miliband’s – and this sloughing of baggage should be taken as an opportunity not, of course, to submit to nationalism … but to establish a meaningful relationship with a party whose greatest threat is to come to be seen as part of the machinery it has for so long railed against.
That is, in one sense this is a new Britain: liberalism on its last legs, a rump Labour party, a new Scottish voice, and even a vocal, if under-represented-in-Parliament, English nationalism. But in other ways it is a very familiar one: a Tory government, confident of its right and mandate to rule; and a Labour opposition wondering dolefully which way to turn. In an oddly unreflective resignation speech at lunchtime, Ed Miliband said change is made by people, not leaders; but, as Cameron or Osborne might toast themselves this evening in Downing Street, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.