Britain has always had a reputation for being traditional. On Friday morning, as the results of the country’s general election rolled in, it appeared to be deserved.
After a bitterly fought election campaign, where polls appeared to point to a hung parliament, the Conservative Party, previously in coalition with the the Liberal Democrats, looked set for an outright victory. With just a handful of seats to declare, the party had won 323 seats in the 650-seat House of Commons, tantalisingly close to a majority. Further declarations and parliamentary quirks meant it was likely to cross the line by the end of the day.
It was a triumph for current Prime Minister David Cameron. He won his seat comfortably. London mayor Boris Johnson, a contemporary of Mr. Cameron at both the incredibly exclusive boarding school Eton, and at Oxford University, who was photographed posing with Mr. Cameron in white tie in tails as a student, did too.
The Labour party meanwhile delivered its worst set of results since 1987, when Margaret Thatcher won her third victory. The Liberal Democrats, who went into coalition with the Conservatives in 2010, were nearly wiped out. They had won 57 seats in the last election. Now they have less than 10.
The strength of the Conservative victory is likely to lead to the resignation of Mr. Cameron's three biggest rivals: Labour leader Ed Miliband, head of the United Kingdom Independence Party Nigel Farage and Liberal Democrat boss Nick Clegg.
The current first-past-the-post system, where winner takes all, will have to change.
Markets like strong governments that promise light regulation and that is what they got. The FTSE 100 index of the biggest listed companies on the London Stock Exchange rallied strongly, and the FTSE 250 hit a record high. The pound also jumped sharply against the dollar and euro.
Shares in energy companies rose too, as investors reacted with relief that Mr. Miliband would not be able to implement the energy price prize freeze he had promised. Shares in banks and building companies also rose.
But relief that the status quo is being maintained may be short lived. The Conservatives have won, but their grip on power is weak. They have not won an outright landslide victory, the way Tony Blair did in 1997, and Britain’s political system is still facing profound change.
Mr. Cameron had promised to hold a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union if his party was re-elected. He does not want Britain to leave, but promised to hold the referendum to appease the influential euro-skeptic members of his own party and to take the steam out of the United Kingdon Independence Party, which at one point appeared to pose a serious threat to the Conservative voter base.
The tactic appeared to have been successful. UKIP won just one seat in the elections, with its colorful populist leader Nigel Farage failing to secure a victory.
Mr. Cameron now hopes E.U. member states, including Germany, will allow him to renegotiate some details of Britain’s membership to enable him to argue that Britain can stay in the bloc on its own terms. There are no guarantees he will be able to.
German chancellor Angela Merkel has a good personal rapport with Mr. Cameron, but has grown exasperated with his stance on the European Union and made it clear she will not alter its basic fundamentals to appease Britain.
Der Spiegel magazine called the result “bad news for Europe” and said that Cameron will be even more susceptible to blackmail from within his own party than he has been in the last five years.
It is also clear that the British political system will have to be overhauled. The Conservatives had run a campaign warning voters that Labour would have to rely on the Scottish National Party to form a government, and, despite having been in a coalition themselves since 2010, managed to persuade voters that this particular merger of SNP and Labour would lead to chaos.
But the triumph of the Conservative party should not be seen as a sign that nothing is changing. The Scottish Nationalist Party won 56 out of 59 seats in Scotland, up from just six in the last election. The triumph was at Labour’s expense: It lost 40 seats in Scotland and now has just one.
The Conservatives will still have to contend with the fact that the SNP is now a major force in British politics. The party, led by Nicola Sturgeon, is anti-austerity, separatist: Everything the Conservatives are not.
The Conservatives have always been strong supporters of a strong, centralized unitary state but the SNP victory forced them to concede that some power would have to move out of London.
Mr. Cameron has promised more devolution for Wales and Scotland, and London mayor Boris Johnson, a star of the Conservative party who won his seat comfortably , said it was clear that there “has to be some sort of federal offer” for Scotland.
The current first-past-the-post system, where winner takes all, will also have to change. At the moment in each constituency a voter casts a vote for one candidate. The candidate with the most votes wins the seat outright. Votes cast for other candidates have no impact.
This can result in severe imbalances, with a party winning a parliamentary majority without attracting a majority of votes. The Conservatives, for example, have won this year with 37 percent of the vote. Labour, which has admitted it has lost badly, still attracted 31 percent.
It also skews results. UKIP won 13 percent of the vote yet secured just one seat, while the SNP has 5 percent of the vote and 56 seats.
But despite these changes that are to come, it is clear that these elections have helped Mr. Cameron rise in stature. Labour leader Ed Miliband is close to announcing his resignation. He had performed better than expected during the election campaign, but was, in the end, unable to shake off an image of being gauche.
His campaign was also marred by bizarre touches: Election paraphernalia included a coffee mug with the slogan ‘Limits on immigration” stamped on it. Much of Labour’s support comes from first, second or third generation immigrants, who were baffled and hurt by the message. His decision over the weekend to unveil a stone tablet, Moses like, with six Labour pledges engraved on it, was also widely mocked.
The Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg may well also resign. In both parties, several politicians who may have been possible new leaders lost their seats. The Labour shadow chancellor Ed Balls, considered to be the party’s intellectual heavyweight, lost his seat, as did the Liberal Democrats treasury secretary Danny Alexander.
Meera Selva is an editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition writing about European politics. To contact the author: [email protected]