This morning Labour activists, Liberal Democrats, and psephologists alike will be weeping into their cornflakes. In what all pollsters were trailing as the closest general election in a generation, with a hung parliament and an extended period of coalition negotiation in tow, instead we see a new political vista that has the Conservatives as the largest party by over 100 seats and enjoying a franchise with which to form a majority government. Mr Cameron has met the Queen and has been confirmed as the next prime minister.
So - no coalition, no confidence and supply arrangements, no “deals in dusty rooms”. What we have is a reversion back to the kind of traditional Westminster government, controlled by one party, which has typified our system for so long. Was the coalition experiment of the last five years a mere blip in the long-term trend?
Labour: Big names gone and a near-existential crisis in Scotland
The Conservatives are the overwhelming - and unexpectedly so - victors, enjoying an increased number of seats from 2010 while their main Westminster rivals have suffered big losses.
The SNP has almost entirely wiped out Labour in Scotland, and Ed Miliband’s party also failed to pick up the necessary number of swing seats in England and Wales it needed to have a chance of forming a government. Labour didn’t even improve upon its showing in 2010, when it won 258 seats.
Two of the party’s biggest hitters, shadow chancellor Ed Balls and shadow foreign secretary (and general election coordinator) Douglas Alexander have failed to be re-elected. While the former was already at some risk due to the marginality of his seat, the latter had enjoyed a huge majority of over 20,000 which turned into a near-identical SNP majority - a massive swing of over 30%. An experienced, popular and high profile MP losing his seat to a 20-year-old candidate just adds ignominy to defeat. Labour’s energetic leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, also lost his seat despite his best efforts to re-ignite Labour’s campaign.
The Liberal Democrats’ broken heart
While Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg was re-elected to his Sheffield Hallam constituency, albeit with a vastly reduced majority, many of his senior colleagues - indeed the heart of his party - have lost theirs. Household names and veteran politicians like Vince Cable, Charles Kennedy, Simon Hughes, Danny Alexander, Ed Davey and Norman Baker have all been ousted. Not only have seats been lost, it has been estimated that the party has also lost more than £150,000 in deposits for failing to win at least 5% of the vote in 335 seats. The signs are that winning the votes of former Liberal Democrat support was a key ingredient to the Conservatives’ success.
An unfair system?
This general election is also likely to re-invigorate the debate about the efficacy and fairness of the First Past The Post electoral system. As of early this morning, Ukip had won one seat but secured 3.36m votes nationally, while the SNP had won 56 seats and just 1.45m votes. Ironically, the party that has most championed electoral reform, the Liberal Democrats, will not now have the strength in parliament to pursue this agenda.
What next for the defeated?
Since the scale of defeats became obvious this morning, we have already seen Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg step down as party leaders. A new race will now start to decide who will become the next leader of the official opposition and of the Liberal Democrats. Labour has some stalwarts who are obvious contenders - shadow health secretary Andy Burnham, shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper and shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna spring to mind. But Labour may feel it would benefit, instead, from a slightly below-the-radar choice, such as Barnsley Central MP Dan Jarvis.
The choice for the Liberal Democrats could either be much harder or vastly easier. After losing so many of their best-known parliamentarians, the obvious choices are limited. Outspoken party chairman Tim Farron is the early front runner. Reformist former health minister Norman Lamb would also be a popular choice, but beyond these names the pool of ready-made leaders is somewhat depleted.
A new dynamic in Westminster?
While we have seen the end of a coalition government in Westminster for the time being at least, the dynamics in Palace of Westminster nevertheless leave room for surprises. The Conservatives may enjoy a majority, but it is still a slim one, and they might find passing more controversial policies, particularly around austerity measures and welfare cuts, difficult given a relative lack of obvious allies in other parties. We have a new third party in number of seats - the SNP - which will bring a distinctive and provocative style of politics to the Mother of Parliaments. If they, Labour, and what is left of the Liberal Democrats want to - and manage to - work together to disrupt Conservative legislative progress, then life for the new government could be made very difficult indeed.
For a reminder of the Conservative Party’s manifesto commitments in transport, infrastructure and related sectors, read Freshwater’s briefing paper. We will be analysing the Queen’s Speech on Wednesday 27 May to see how many of its pledges make it onto the new government’s agenda for the next parliament.
10 Downing Street - pcruciatti / Shutterstock.com
David Cameron - landmarkmedia / Shutterstock.com