Union’s long-term future put in peril

By defying history to pull off a spectacular election victory David Cameron may yet have set in train events that will soon consign the United Kingdom itself to the history books.

Deadlocked polls showing him on course to lead a shaky, minority government at best were swept away as Cameron became the first incumbent Tory prime minister to increase their MP tally since Margaret Thatcher in 1983, and their share of the popular vote since Anthony Eden in 1955.

Looking as surprised as anyone at his unexpected triumph Cameron declared on the steps of Downing Street that he would govern as a “one nation Tory” — this must have come as something as a surprise to Scottish listeners as he had indeed campaigned in the interests of one nation, but that nation was England.

The Scots were painted as an alien horde set to sweep across Hadrian’s Wall and take Ed Miliband hostage in Downing St until they bled the English taxpayer dry, according to the Tory fear machine.

As ever, Boris Johnson had a catchy phrase for the nightmare scenario, Jockapocalypse Now, and it certainly scared wavering English voters back into the Tory fold, but may yet be the starting point for pushing Scotland out of the Union.

Though the SNP was careful to avoid talk of independence or another referendum in this campaign, the fact it swept an incredible 56 of the 59 seats North of the border will be taken as a mandate to put a breakaway poll in its manifesto for the Edinburgh parliament elections next year.

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And with the political winds at their tail, a hated austerity-loving Tory government in London, and the threat of English votes to quit the EU smothering Scottish votes to stay in the Brexit referendum, the extra 6% of votes needed to take the country to independence after the 55-45 split of last autumn should not be hard to achieve.

But Scotland did not decide this election because even if Labour had clung on to its traditional power base there it would still have finished 50 seats short of the Tories, as it failed to take any of the key English marginals it targeted outside London.

Still blamed for mishandling the 2008 crash, and saddled with a man the public just did not take credibly as an alternative prime minister, political analyst Peter Kelner summed up Labour’s problem: “A party can win if it is behind in the polls on economic competence, and a party can win if it has an unpopular leader, but it cannot win if it has both.”

Abandoning the cherished centre ground that Tony Blair had dragged the party to in the 1990s, Miliband gambled that centre of political gravity had shifted to the left since the crash and its austerity aftermath. It was a gamble which saw him lose everything.

But, though Cameron described the victory as “sweet” after falling so far short in 2010, the mood may soon turn sour in the Tory party as their cavernous dividing fault line of Europe threatens to rip them apart again.

John Major, who also won last minute victory in 1992 with a wafer-thin majority, saw his premiership destroyed by the infighting unleashed over Europe.

Unable to control the Brussels-hating wing of his party, Major had to increasingly rely on the DUP to try and get his way in the Commons as the Tories became almost ungovernable.

Always distrusted and disliked by the Tory right, Cameron now enjoys one-party rule, but with such an unruly party as his one, he will at times wish he still had the buffer zone of his euro-loving Lib Dem coalition partners who insulated him from threats of rebellion from his own europhobes.

Described as the “ravenous dogs of the right” by some in Cameron’s more outward looking, metropolitan circle, the Tory leader was forced to throw them a bit of red meat in the form of an in-out EU referendum to stop them ripping into his leadership.

Cameron knows it would be an economic disaster if Britain quit the EU, and would greatly diminish the country’s standing on the world stage, but he needed to cobble together a compromise to sate the appetite of his own right wing and fend off the threat from Ukip at the same time.

So Cameron has said he will renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the EU, demand the return of powers, particularly regarding business rules, welfare and immigration, and then put the result to the people in 2017.

The trouble is the Germans and French have made it clear they have no intention of giving Cameron more than window dressing to show for his stance, and with a wildly europhobic press, the prime minister could well lose control of events and see Britain turn its back on the EU almost by accident.

In the end, Ukip did not trouble the Tories, but they have embedded themselves across Northern England as the official opposition to Labour, yet another headache the party’s new leader could do without.

And how the Irish Labour Party must have shivered in recognition when a humiliated Nick Clegg blamed the Lib Dem wipeout on the party putting the country’s interests ahead of the party’s — that’s exactly the line Joan Burton and co use to defend their participation in an austerity alliance with Fine Gael.

The Conservative and Unionist Party won by relying on the politics of fear, fear of an untested Labour leader, fear of rocking the recovery, and fear of a government held to ransom by Scottish nationalists.

But by unleashing that fear for short-term political game they have now put the long-term future of the Union in peril.

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