LONDON: Britain awoke to a new political landscape on Saturday after a shock election victory for Prime Minister David Cameron that decapitated the opposition and bolstered secessionists in Scotland.
Defying the opinion polls ahead of Thursday’s vote, Cameron’s Conservatives won 331 of the 650 seats in parliament, giving him a second term in office – this time with a majority for his centre-right party.
There were dramatic gains for the Conservatives and the Scottish National Part (SNP), while the opposition was left in disarray after the Labour and Liberal Democrat leaders quit over their defeat.
The UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader also resigned, after a huge swell in support for the anti-EU populist party secured only one seat.
In their first editions since the full election result, British newspapers said on Saturday that Cameron had pulled off a triumphant victory thanks to a surge in support from so-called shy Conservatives.
“A fresh era of British politics dawns,” read a headline in the centre-rightDaily Telegraph.
Jonathan Freedland, a columnist for the Guardian, which backed Labour, contemplated the fate of the opposition saying: “After an earthquake on this scale, will it be possible to pick up the pieces?”
The victory gives the Conservatives a freer hand than in Cameron’s previous government – a coalition with the Liberal Democrats – but the slender majority leaves them prey to rebellion in their own ranks.
The Times said Cameron would need “every ounce of statesmanship” to surmount the challenges facing him.
“His majority is slim and using it will not be easy. His real work starts now.”
Cameron only agreed to hold an in-out referendum on Britain’s EU membership by 2017 because of pressure from the Conservative right-wing and a rising UKIP and he was quick to confirm his pledge on Friday.
There is growing concern in the business community about the referendum, even though Cameron has said he will campaign to stay in as long as he can negotiate reforms to cut down on EU migrants moving to Britain.
EU partners gave a taste of the tough talks ahead in their congratulations for his re-election, with French President Francois Hollande saying that there were “rules in Europe” to be respected.
European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker said that the bloc’s four key principles including freedom of movement were “non-negotiable”.
Cameron will also face a tough battle to keep Scotland in the United Kingdom and in a post-election speech pledged to grant sweeping new local powers.
Some Conservatives have said it might take more than that and have outlined a federal vision for the future of Britain, which is made up of four nations – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Cameron mulls cabinet jobs
Cameron has kept his top four ministers in place and boosted the nominal power of his finance minister George Osborne, but was to spend the weekend drawing up names for the remaining ministries.
Cameron also made Chancellor of the Exchequer Osborne the “first secretary of state” – an honorific title that implies seniority over all other ministers and effectively makes him his number two.
He is expected to take until Monday to complete his cabinet fully, then finalise more junior ministerial posts over the coming week.
During the election campaign, Cameron named Osborne, interior minister Theresa May and London Mayor Boris Johnson as his chief possible successors after previously pledging this would be his final term in office.
The election victory is an endorsement of the Conservatives’ austerity programme and is likely to see a continuation of cuts to public spending as they seek to reduce a budget deficit of nearly Â£90 billion.
The pound rallied and stocks rose as investors welcomed a clear result and a government seen by the markets as more “business-friendly” than the Labour alternative.
Parties digest results
Centre-left Labour won 232 seats, while the centrist Liberal Democrats were eviscerated after five years in coalition with the Conservatives, ending up with eight seats after losing 49.
In Scotland, the left-wing SNP won a historic landslide – 56 of the 59 Scottish seats – just seven months after losing a referendum on seceding from the UK.
The Labour Party is set for a period of soul-searching as it starts choosing a replacement for Ed Miliband, who stood down as leader.
The party’s executive committee is expected to meet next week to begin considering its options, although the leadership election process could take months.
The tricky challenge is to find a leader who can win back those voters who have moved leftwards to the SNP in Scotland – hitherto a Labour heartland – and those who swung behind the Conservatives in England.
Nick Clegg, the outgoing deputy prime minister, was among the eight Liberal Democrats re-elected but shortly afterwards resigned the party leadership.
UKIP leader Nigel Farage also stepped down after failing to win his constituency. His anti-EU, anti-mass-immigration party came third in the share of the vote with 12.6 percent but won only one seat.