The danger has passed in the United Kingdom - for now

Nick Sitter

The elections in the United Kingdom did not trigger the predicted political earthquake. Three out of four potential dangers were averted. But British politics are still far from boring.

For most English voters, the elections on 7th May 2015 meant a choice between economic stability at the expense of EU relations, or a stable relationship with the EU coupled with an uncertain economic policy.

The first choice was offered by the coalition between the Conservatives and Liberals, while Ed Milibands Labour represented the second.

After several weeks of polls that heralded a dead heat between the two main parties, it came as a surprise that Cameron’s party eventually took 37 percent of the vote, six to seven percentage points ahead of Miliband’s party.

As election night went on, it became gradually clear that the Conservatives would win an outright majority in Parliament on its own, with two or three mandates over the majority limit of 326.

By giving Prime Minister David Cameron a new mandate, voters have indicated that they prefer risks related to EU membership rather than the risk of more leftist economic policies.

In many ways the 2015 elections was “the elections earthquake that didn’t happen.” Of the four main challenges that the elections might have led to, three were averted.

Danger one remains:

Cameron has promised a referendum on Britain’s EU membership. This was the price he had to pay to keep the “EU worst offenders” in his own party at peace. It was also the Conservatives’ main strategy to meet the challenge from the UK Independence Party (UKIP) on the far right. It seems to have worked well in the short-term. UKIP, which is the country’s third largest party in number of votes, barely got more than one seat.

The next two years are likely to see much unrest around Cameron’s pledge to renegotiate the terms of EU membership. The risk of a local majority in the referendum and an internal split in Cameron’s party may outshine the EF battle in Norway in the 1970s.

Danger two averted:

It was not possible that both the Tories and Labour could survive the elections without scratching the paint. After 25 years of competition to capture the political centre, Cameron focused on winning the right-leaning voters, while Miliband sought the votes of the left-leaning. These are high-risk strategies.

The losing party could look forward to a serious debate about changing both management and strategy. Miliband drew the shortest straw. Labour faces a turbulent future.

Danger three averted:

The third-awaited challenge was minor parties. It appeared that neither Labour nor Conservative would win a majority. If that happened, it would be difficult to have a capable and stable minority or coalition government.  

Because UKIP got such low amount of mandates, the British avoided the danger of having a questionable far-right party holding the balance of power in a coalition government. This kind of situation exists in several European countries – Sweden might be the best example.

Danger four averted:

The fourth issue was the extent to which the Queen and the civil service could be drawn into the political game if the election had given the conservatives the most seats but not the majority (even with the liberals), while Labour and the Scottish National Party (SNP) total was greater.

Would Cameron have held onto his job, at the same time that Miliband is challenging it? Where would the Queen, who appoints the Prime Minister, align herself with?

The signal from the 2015 elections

“All clear” is the most important signal from the 2015 elections in the United Kingdom. A stable economy is likely to continue on a steady course. The Queen will not have to choose a prime minister. But this is only temporary.

The government faces major challenges related to economic policy, productivity and investments in health care that can create major turmoil on the right wing. UKIP faced a rise in popularity in the 2015 elections, gaining as many as the Liberal Democrats and the SNP combined. All concerns about unclear election results could rise again during the next election.

The biggest political risk of the election results is the possibility of a “Brexit” – Britain’s exit from the EU. The Scots rejected the independence referendum in 2014, which can be interpreted as a signal that voters prefer to stick with the status quo. Yet SNP’s progress shows that a referendum does not necessarily take the wind out of nationalist sails. Cameron faces a major challenge from UKIP, whether it is a yes or a no to the EU in 2017.

For Norway, a British no to the EU referendum necessarily raises the question of how the EU relates to its ‘quasi-members’. No matter what happens, one thing is certain. There is little danger that British politics will be dull in the coming years.

Published 3. June 2015

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