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Expert Comment: General Election

Downing Street Monday 11 May 2015

Following the surprise election results on Friday morning, Bill Jones, Senior Research Fellow and former professor History and Politics Liverpool Hope gives his analysis.

How ironic that the chrysalis finally opened to allow the confident media-savvy butterfly to emerge and even present a credible match for the other prime ministerial contenders, but after five long years of under achievement it was too little too late. That this fact took so long to manifest itself was the fault of the polls which fooled us all, including the pollsters themselves, by under-reporting Conservative support and over estimating Labour's - both by about 3 per cent. The result was a political earthquake which will take many months to absorb. And yet the BBC exit poll, presented at 10pm at the start of the results programme, was so counter intuitive that Paddy Ashdown promised that if it proved correct he'd eat his hat; Alastair Campbell, former Labour spin doctor, chimed in by offering a similar pledge regarding his kilt.

Throughout the campaign the polls showed two big parties running neck and neck at around 33-34% each and a solid consensus insisted that there would be a hung parliament followed by days or even weeks of inter-party negotiations to find a government. Bookmakers offered the chances of a Tory majority as distant as 8-1. But as the results filtered through it slowly became clear that Professor John Curtice's exit poll for the BBC was being proved almost uncannily accurate; in fact he underestimated the final tally of Tory seats which at 37%  delivered 331 and that apparently un-winnable overall majority.

Labour, aware it would be badly hurt by the SNP, thought gains in English marginals would still deliver an increased number of seats on 2010; in reality it managed only 30.4% of the vote and a reduction from 258 to 232 seats, its worst performance since the Thatcher slaughter in 1983. Labour proved too right wing for Scotland yet too left wing for England. As for the poor Lib-Dems, they confidently expected serious losses but also a residual group of some 25-30 'balance of power' MPs.  They lost 47 and were reduced to a tiny rump of 8 from their 7.9% of the vote, their lowest tally since Jo Grimond's 1960s Liberal Party.       

For the SNP, whose leader Nicola Sturgeon had dominated the campaign, 4.9% of the UK vote won a sensational victory north of the border, winning 56 of the 59 seats available. As for the smaller parties: Plaid Cymru retained their 3 seats; and the Greens their sole MP from their far from negligible 3.8% of the vote. UKIP had even more cause to rail against the iniquities of the simple majority voting system; having hoped for a dozen or more seats before the election, their 12.6% of the vote garnered only the retained seat of Douglas Carswell.

The Conservative campaign was criticised for being narrow, cautious and boring but, advised by his wily Australian strategist, Lynton Crosby, an emphasis on the Coalition's success in turning around the economy and its long term plan for growth plus a ferocious focus on Ed Miliband's shortcomings proved in the end decisive in convincing undecided voters to opt for the status quo premier. The final campaign element - warning voters that a minority Labour government propped up by the leftwing SNP would lead to the break up of the UK- proved decisive and produced a historic victory, against the odds for Cameron.        

Cameron's victory has scattered his political opponents, both in the country and within his own party -Boris Johnson and Theresa May will have to wait at least 5 years for their chance. For a while at least he is the master of all he surveys. But in reality, his majority of only 12, 7 less than John Major in 1992, means he will be virtual hostage to his powerful euro-sceptic right wing and faces virtually insurmountable political problems. Just for starters, if he is able to negotiate any kind of changes in UK terms of membership but finds he cannot win his 2017 referendum, he will be forced to urge EU withdrawal. Yet if he does so, the SNP, very keen to stay within the EU, will almost certainly call for a second referendum which they are likely to win, thus leaving history to judge Cameron responsible for the break-up of the Union. One almost wonders why anyone ever wants to become Prime Minister! 

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