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A Pyrrhic victory for Cameron?

Published in Business Spectator (Melbourne), 14 May 2015

bigbenThere is no question that the British Conservatives’ election result is way better than any pollster had predicted. Achieving an absolute majority of the seats is a major feat for Prime Minister David Cameron – and one that probably not even Cameron himself would have thought possible. He deserves to be congratulated on that.

Cameron should not spend too much time celebrating, however. First of all, a closer look at the figures shows that his victory is not quite as impressive as it looks at first sight. Second, the tasks ahead of Cameron are so challenging they make the last election campaign look like a walk in the park.

The next couple of years will be crucial for David Cameron’s premiership. They will define his place in the history books. Will he be remembered as the Prime Minister who restored the British economy, kept the Kingdom united and negotiated a better deal with the European Union? Or will he fail on any of these fronts – in which case his re-election could well be seen as a Pyrrhic victory.

To begin with the numbers, emphatic election victories typically look different from what Cameron’s Conservatives scored last Thursday. In the end, the party managed to get 36.9 per cent of the vote. That is only slightly better than the Conservatives’ 2010 result, which had them on 36.1 per cent.

Cameron’s result is an okay outcome, but not an electoral triumph. To put it into comparison, in his first couple of elections, Tony Blair achieved around 43 per cent for the Labour Party – as did Margaret Thatcher for the Tories in her three election victories. Historically, there have been elections in which parties found themselves in opposition with a much larger share of the vote. For example, Labour won 43.8 per cent in 1959 and still lost to the Conservatives.

For those who think that such large shares of the vote are unachievable in today’s fractured electoral landscapes, Germany’s Angela Merkel managed 41.5 per cent for her party in 2013, New Zealand’s John Key (in his third election!) won 47 per cent last year – and Tony Abbott got 45.6 per cent of the popular vote in the 2013 federal election.

The figures look even worse when considering the mediocre turnout. Only 66.1 per cent of the electorate voted. This means that Cameron’s Conservatives only have the backing of 22.5 per cent of all voters. On such figures, one might well ask what legitimacy there is behind their absolute parliamentary majority.

And there is yet another way of looking at Cameron’s election result, which makes it appear even weaker. The two parties that formed his coalition government over the past five years scored a combined 59 per cent of the popular vote in 2010. That was reduced to 44.8 per cent in this year’s election. In other words, the previous government lost about a quarter of its electoral support – hardly a ringing endorsement of its performance.

Given all these figures, one might well come to the conclusion that Cameron was lucky to have won 51 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons with a relatively modest share of the vote. It was only thanks to the fracturing of Britain’s political landscape, a hapless campaign by his Labour opponent Ed Miliband, low voter turnout and a cunning electoral strategy that focused on killing off the Liberal Democrats that Cameron retained the keys to 10 Downing Street.

After the election, former Conservative Chief Whip and now Justice Secretary Michael Gove said the Prime Minister had the “wind in his sails” and insisted that rebellious backbenchers should therefore get in line and kowtow to the Prime Minister’s authority. It may take a while for Cameron’s party to realise how lucky it has been in this election. But once it does, it will undermine Cameron’s authority – and leave Gove’s reasoning wishful thinking.

Which leads us to the second reason why Cameron’s election victory may not turn out to be a reason to celebrate in the long run. What lies ahead of Cameron’s government are serious challenges which require a united party, especially because his parliamentary majority is wafer-thin.

In the Commons, Cameron has a working majority of just 15 MPs (also because the four Northern Irish Sinn Féin MPs do not take their seats). Especially when it comes to European Union matters, this could turn out to be insufficient.

The Conservative party has been hopelessly divided on EU matters since the days of Margaret Thatcher. In the last parliament, Cameron’s coalition government was defeated in a motion on the EU budget in 2012 when 53 Conservative MPs defied the party line. It is not going to be any easier for Cameron in the new parliament.

Cameron stands to suffer the same fate as his Conservative predecessor John Major. Major also unexpectedly won a re-election (in 1992) but then had to spend the next five years dealing with a near-permanent revolt over Europe from his own backbenches.

By 2017 at the latest, and perhaps much earlier if newspaper reports can be believed, Cameron will hold a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. He wants to hold it having renegotiated the terms of Britain’s membership first. However, EU leaders are not prepared to have it that way. EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Parliament President Martin Schulz first want to hear from Britain whether it even wants to stay in the EU before they are even going to talk about potential concessions.

There is no way in which Cameron could come to a negotiation result with the EU that will satisfy both his party’s Europhiles and its Eurosceptics. One wing or the other will always be dissatisfied with the outcome – and rebel. And, of course, the referendum could also fail to produce the outcome that Cameron would like to see. It could force his government to stay in Europe even if he had failed to gain substantial concessions from Brussels. It could also force him to leave the EU even if he has gained any such concessions.

The business of negotiating with Europe and then going into a referendum will prove a massive distraction to the business of governing the UK. Not that this would be easy in the first place. We have not even mentioned the Scottish problem after the Scottish Nationalists’ sweeping victory north of the border. We have not talked about the promise of “English votes for English laws”, plans to abolish the Human Rights Act, reforms of the BBC, let alone cuts to the welfare state or policies to reign in the budget deficit.

Cameron’s all-Conservative government will have plenty of challenges to overcome in this new parliament. And in doing so, it will not have the convenient excuse left of having to take a coalition partner’s view into account.

Once Cameron’s post-election party is over, he will soon realise that there is not going to be a honeymoon for his government. He faces some of the most difficult problems any peace-time UK government ever had to tackle. And neither his party’s mediocre share of the popular vote nor his thin parliamentary majority will help.

So once again congratulations to Cameron’s Conservatives on their unexpected election victory – and good luck for the coming five years. They will need it.

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