Within minutes of the UK's polls closing on Thursday evening, an election outcome no one had predicted was harshly outlined by the exit polls: a Tory majority government, a complete wipe-out for the Lib-Dems nationwide, and a dreadful and hugely disappointing overall result for Labour, with their wipe-out in Scotland by the Scottish Nationalist Party every bit as bad as Labour's worst scenarios.
Big names fell throughout the night – Labour's Douglas Alexander went early on, later shadow Chancellor Ed Balls after a recount in the grey light of the next morning. Vince Cable, Simon Hughes, Charles Kennedy, Danny Alexander and many other Lib-Dems saw their parliamentary careers ended, while Nick Clegg kept his seat only to gaze out over a rump Lib-Dem contingent of 8 MPs down from 57. The Lib-Dem share of the UK-wide vote was under 8%, a debacle from which there may be no return. By early breakfast time, pundits were wondering if it would be Clegg or Miliband to step down first; in the event, UKIP's Nigel Farage beat them to it, resigning first, then Clegg shortly before midday and Miliband less than 30 minutes later. The face of British politics changed in one short hour.
The two big victors of the night were David Cameron and Nicola Sturgeon. Cameron is back in Downing Street with a majority no poll had predicted before election day and that the Tories hadn't dared to dream of. And Nicola Sturgeon led the SNP to victory in 56 out of Scotland's 59 MPs – up 50 MPs from 2010. As one Scottish journalist put it ironically on Twitter, there were even so more Unionist MPs in Scotland than pandas (three MPs - one each of Labour, LibDem and Tory, with just two pandas on loan from China in Edinburgh zoo).
The UK's first-past-the post system delivered the Tories their small but so unexpected majority with about 37% of the vote, while the landslide in Scotland reflected the SNP getting over 50% of Scotland's votes. Labour was wiped out in its historic heartland of Scotland, despite – or indeed very much linked to – the 'no' vote in the independence referendum. The UK Independence Party with its anti-EU, anti-migration, Little Englander stance came out of the night as the UK's third biggest party in percentage terms – around 12% – but only one MP. Leader Nigel Farage failed to win his target seat and promised (before his resignation) to fight for proportional representation, something that David Cameron is not likely to be spending time on in the next five years.
EU Referendum, potential Brexit on Cards
David Cameron has said very clearly that he would not govern again without holding an EU referendum, so that prospect will now move centre stage. He has also said it would be by 2017, yet it is very unclear how any treaty change could be agreed and ratified by the EU's 28 member states in such a short time scale, but that will be his aim.
Cameron's likely demands for EU reform are fuzzy and have changed often in the last couple of years. Migration, despite its prominence in the British political debate in the last few years, did not figure centrally in the election campaign, but issues of controlling and restricting other EU citizens from UK benefits is likely to figure strongly in Cameron's demand for EU reforms, but what sort of changes other member states will support is less than clear.
Still, with a possible 'Brexit' now on the cards, other EU leaders, however reluctant given the 'awkward squad' approach of the UK to EU affairs, will mostly do what they can to keep the UK in while protecting their own interests. The most recent polls put the 'yes' vote for staying in ahead, but much can change in a country with a Tory government with a small majority and a strong right-wing agenda, a large eurosceptic UKIP contingent, a wiped-out Lib-Dem party, and a Union with Scotland fraying rapidly.
While the main focus in EU politics for the Cameron-led government will be the referendum, the loss of British influence in the EU over the last five years – from a low profile on Ukraine and Turkey, to no influence over budgetary policies – is likely to continue along with the UK's wider lessening of global foreign policy influence.
Future cuts in public expenditure are likely to lead to a harsher atmosphere, with unpredictable impacts on opinion on the EU. The Tories’ promised cuts are likely to leave the British state a much smaller share of national income than, in some predictions, since the 1930s. The Tories promised £12 billion in cuts from the welfare budget heralds some drastic attacks on poorer people's benefits, from young people to the disabled and sick.
Independence for Scotland on the cards again
The bonds linking the four countries of the United Kingdom are now visibly strained to a new level with Scotland and England heading in such different directions politically. The vote in Scotland was in many ways positive, representing a new, positive engagement with politics across the country, including a more positive outlook on the EU, on migration, as well as a strong anti-austerity position. But the SNP will have little influence over Cameron's majority government (though in his first statement on the steps of no 10, Cameron promised more devolution soon), and the chance of a majority at Westminster with Labour disappeared in the earlier hours of Thursday night.
In the middle of election night, Nicola Sturgeon insisted that this vote was not one about independence, but held out the possibility that elections to the Scottish Parliament due next year would indeed potentially bring the issue up all over again. Any 'no' in the now definite EU referendum would also clearly propel the more pro-EU Scots towards an independence 'yes'. The UK's historic 300-year existence is now under question like never before.
Where next for the UK?
Cameron has said he would not serve a third term as Prime Minister, so his fellow cabinet ministers will surely be setting out their stalls very soon to succeed him as leader, and contenders will doubtless be pushing for a leadership election in two years’ time rather than the three or four that Cameron might prefer.
The UK has a clearer government now than many had expected, but the future of the UK, as a country and in the EU, is anything but clear.