The U.K. election: Winners, losers, and trouble to come

Michael Petrou on the resignations, victories and conflicts that may lie ahead following Thursday’s vote

Will Oliver/EPA

Will Oliver/EPA

So it turns out Britain isn’t the tottering, ungovernable mess many predicted it would become after yesterday’s election after all. At least not quite. Trouble may lurk ahead. But more on that in a moment.

First, let’s take stock. David Cameron’s Conservative Party defied expectations and exit polls to win a majority government. There will be no hung parliament, no unwieldy coalition, no threat of another election in a year’s time. Cameron has a clear mandate from a plurality of British voters.

Labour Party Leader Ed Miliband took responsibility for his party’s poor performance and stepped down. Miliband would be a tragic figure if his character traits were grander, his fatal flaw something nobler than a sort of mushy mediocrity that makes people look elsewhere. King Lear had blinding pride. Gordon Brown was a dark and brooding obsessive. Miliband is awkward. The only time he really looked like a leader was when he announced his resignation.

A lot of Labour supporters will now be wondering whether Ed’s brother David, whom they rejected in a leadership contest five years ago, will come home from New York and save them. Probably not. Some bad decisions you don’t get to do over. At least Labour now has time to get their next one right. Cameron will lead a government with a wafer-thin majority and has said he won’t run again. This is not a Conservative dynasty in the making. It should be vulnerable to Labour in 2020.

The Liberal Democrats, on the other hand, may be crippled for some time to come. They won 57 seats in 2010 and were the junior partner in a coalition government with the Conservatives. They’ve now been reduced to eight seats. Party leader Nick Clegg resigned in tears.

Nigel Farage, leader of the right-wing, euroskeptic UK Independence Party, has also quit after failing to win his riding—though he says he may run for the party’s leadership in September. UKIP took only one constituency in total. It attracted 13 per cent of the popular vote. This is a huge uptick from 2010, but Britain’s liberal centre shouldn’t panic.

UKIP cannot be fairly grouped together with some of the far-right parties making gains on the continent, such as Jobbik in Hungary or Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France. Le Pen has tried to soften her party’s image, but she’s still far to the right of UKIP, and Farage has shunned any co-operation with her. Even so, UKIP is scorned by most Britons. It remains a marginal political force.

A more definitive victory against fringe politics—and a deeply unpleasant individual—occurred in the constituency of Bradford West, where George Galloway was seeking re-election on the Respect party ticket after winning a by-election in 2012.

Galloway, who has moonlighted as a presenter on Iran’s English-language propaganda network, is a nasty piece of work. During the campaign, he accused his Labour opponent, Naz Shah, of lying when she claimed to have been forced marry a cousin in Pakistan when she was 15. At a public event, he brandished what he said was her Islamic wedding certificate showing she was in fact married at 16. Shah soundly beat Galloway. He said “the venal and the vile, the racists and the Zionists” would celebrate his defeat. He’ll probably run to be mayor of London, but at least he’s out of Westminster.

All that’s the good news. Now for the trouble ahead.

The Scottish National Party demolished its opponents, winning 56 out of 59 seats in Scotland. That’s not necessarily a threat to British unity in and of itself. Scotland just had a referendum on whether to remain in the United Kingdom. The separatists lost. This vote doesn’t mean Scottish voters want another go at divorce proceedings.

But that may change because of a promise David Cameron made to hold a referendum on Britain’s continued membership in the European Union. Cameron says he wants Britain to stay in, albeit under renegotiated terms. And Labour is pro-Europe. But it’s conceivable that a majority of Britons may vote otherwise.

A strong majority of Scots, however, favour membership in the EU. If the rest of Britain were to leave, Scottish nationalists may have a winning issue on which to campaign for independence: sticking with the European Union.

There are a lot of hypotheticals that would need to fall into place before Britain reaches that point. Canada has functioned with a strong contingent of Quebec nationalists in the House of Commons. Now Britain will get used to something similar. It’s been an interesting election, but not a kingdom-shaking one.

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