After years of sharing power, David Cameron pulled off an unexpected election triumph that gave the Conservative prime minister a second term with an outright majority Friday and dealt a stinging defeat to his three main rivals.
Standing before the glistening black door of 10 Downing Street, Cameron pledged to govern as the party of “one nation, one United Kingdom.” But he faces a fractured Britain — divided by rich and poor, by separatist gains in Scotland and by doubts over its place in the European Union.
The election ushers in a new era in British politics, with veteran lawmakers ousted by a public that made clear it had lost trust in its political leaders. The victors included a 20-year-old Scottish nationalist who beat out a senior Labour Party leader in Scotland.
It was also unexpected. Polls had predicted a dead heat — a result that would have meant days of haggling to form a new government. Queen Elizabeth II was out of town at her castle in Windsor, and needed to rush back to London for the traditional meeting at Buckingham Palace in which the victor offers to form a government.
By the time Cameron met the monarch all three of his major rivals had resigned: Ed Miliband of the Labour Party, Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats and Nigel Farage of the U.K. Independence Party.
For the losers, Cameron offered sympathy. “Elections can be bruising clashes of ideas and arguments, and a lot of people who believe profoundly in public service have seen that service cut short,” he said.
The surprising outcome merely underscored how much things have changed — that there is now a new unpredictability in British politics. The idea of two big parties squabbling over the spoils is over. There are new players — and some are very young. Some don’t even want a United Kingdom at all.
“For the new government, it is not possible to carry on business as usual,” said Murray Pittock, a professor at the University of Glasgow. “Such a course is not a sustainable or good course to ensure the survival of the UK.”
With the Conservatives winning an outright majority in the 650-seat House of Commons, the result looked to be far better for Cameron than even his own party had foreseen. With all the votes counted, the Conservatives had 331 seats to Labour’s 232.
But the new ruling class inherits a country divided by negative campaigning and infighting about the future. Fought largely over the economy, the race revolved around the question of whether the Conservative-led government charted the right course through the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis, the worst recession since the 1930s.
Cameron argued his party needed time to cement its successes after five years of budget cuts designed to shrink the deficit and bolster growth. His primary opponent, Miliband, focused the debate on inequality, saying the recovery hadn’t trickled down to the poorest in this nation of 64 million.
Heaping further pressure on the working poor has been an influx of thousands of migrants from the European Union, particularly from the former eastern bloc countries that joined the 28-nation free-trade zone over the past decade. The influx has changed Britain, straining schools, hospitals and other public services.
Cameron’s promise to hold a referendum and win concessions from the EU plainly resonated with voters worried that the country was losing its grip on its borders.
The result, and Britain’s unease with the EU, will strengthen Cameron’s hand in talks with EU leaders in Brussels, who are mindful of the power that Britain’s banks and financial service industries bring to the bloc. The referendum has been promised by the end of 2017 — but Cameron has only pledged to hold it, not support it.
Still, his majority, however surprising, is small. His own party is divided on the issue of Britain leaving the EU. Many senior business leaders are vociferously opposed, as is Scotland. It won’t be simple — and it all needs to be done without trampling the economic recovery.
“The pound surged against the euro and the dollar on news of a Conservative victory because the markets value continuity and fiscal austerity,” said Peter Urwin, co-author of “It’s the Economy, Stupid: Economics for Voters.” ”But the increased risk … will be the long-term economic hangover facing the country following this election result.”
Labour took a beating in Scotland, mostly from energized Scottish nationalists who pulled off a landslide that gave the Scottish National Party 56 of the 59 seats.
The vote represents “a clear voice for an end to austerity, better public services and more progressive politics at Westminster,” SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon told the BBC.
It also greatly strengthens a party that wants to split from the country all together.
“The Scottish lion has roared this morning across the country,” said former SNP leader Alex Salmond, who was elected in the constituency of Gordon.
The most symbolic win belonged to Mhairi Black, the 20-year-old university student who defeated Labour Party heavyweight Douglas Alexander to become the youngest British lawmaker since 1667. The win underscored the extent of the Scottish National Party’s triumph — and Scotland’s rejection of Labour, the party that long counted the north as its base.
“The people of Scotland are speaking, and it is time for their voice to be heard at Westminster,” Black said.
One of the big losers of the day was Farage, who resigned after losing his race. His U.K. Independence Party came in third in the popular vote, but won only one seat — a casualty of an electoral system in which the candidate with the highest number of votes in each area wins, even if he or she does not gain a majority of votes cast.
Since UKIP’s support is spread geographically across the country — rather than in any single area — it could be runner-up in many places but gain hardly a foothold in Parliament.
That discrepancy was another factor in the push for change — one that won’t be solved any time soon. At a time when people are frustrated, and want to know why leaders keep failing to deliver, anything can happen.
“As for a new political class … Labour may want to skip a generation,” said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. “It’s also going to have to come up with some fresh ideas that keep its core supporters on board at the same time as reaching out to floating voters who don’t trust it with their money.”