The resounding victory in British elections last week giving Conservatives their first absolute majority in the House of Commons for almost two decades is the last thing Britain needs now.
This is not a straight-out political judgment regretting Labor’s defeat -- it’s the last thing the Conservative Party needs, too. And Europe. Less obviously but just as truly, it’s also bad news from the rest of us.
Everyone understood that these polls were in part a referendum on Prime Minister David Cameron’s austerity policies, implemented in 2010 in response to the global economic and financial crisis. But with the Tories’ unexpectedly strong showing, they’re going to prove much more than this.
British voters just handed Cameron his very own Tea Party problem.
It’s about to prove too true. Conservative extremists in Commons, contained for five years as Cameron made his necessary compromises with Deputy Prime Minister Clegg, are all set to march the prime minister rightward across all fronts. And Cameron will go for the sake of his survival.
I see nothing pretty in the picture about to emerge. Its principal features, already in outline, are these:
• Economic policy. George Osborne, Cameron’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, boasts that Britain now has Europe’s best-performing economy, so proving his austerity policies—unprecedented in their severity—were right all along. Its smoke and mirrors, as Paul Krugman has persuasively argued for some time.
Britain’s recovery is all of two quarters old, it follows a politically necessary letup in Osborne’s program, and by the evidence it would have begun far earlier had Osborne been less the evangelist.
In a spending review due in a few months, Cameron and Osborne are likely to resume cuts in social-welfare spending in areas such as housing, all detrimental to demand. They are likely to hold to a previous target of eliminating the structural deficit by 2018.
Late in the campaign Cameron promised to commit $1.23billion in new money to the National Health Service, NHS being to Britons what the Grand Canyon is to Yanks—semi-sacred. But note: This promise isn’t yet funded, and Tories have been after the NHS since Thatcher’s day.
Here’s Oliver Wright of The Independent, writing Saturday: “As well as deep welfare cuts, The Independent understands that the Department of Business and the Department of Energy and Climate Change, previously run by the Lib Dems, will be among the biggest casualties in terms of spending reductions.”
Back-of-an-envelope forecast: Those two quarters of good growth will probably evaporate like rain on a hot country road, and exaggerated austerity will show its face yet again.
• British politics. Cameron and his mainstream Tory allies will come to regret not their victory but the size of it—331 seats, to 232 for Labor and the Liberal Democrats’ 8. A nasty polarization lies in prospect, serving nobody.
Cameron can now go forward with such things as his “snoopers’ charter,” as Brits call his ambitions—at least as large as the NSA’s, if not larger—to extend Internet surveillance more or less without restraint. But as he rushes to cover his right flank on numerous other questions he’ll risk losing a lot of mainstream appeal. Those to-the-point Britons long-ago nicknamed Tories “the nasty party.”
As to Labor, it’s in a true fix. Tony Blair’s “New Labor” stamp remains, but it just lost out, and many Britons now view Blair as something between a buffoon and a snake-oil salesman. Greens and other parties drawing on old Labor traditions are already on the move. Thus: While staying put may hold less promise than it did even a week ago, party leaders probably figure that moving left would risk losing ballot-box appeal. Nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide, it seems.
Executive summary: Britain isn’t fated to become another Greece or Spain, but a British variant of the fractures now evident in those two nations’ political cultures will now come into the open. Both major parties face big risks and choices.
• The “United” Kingdom. After failing in a referendum on independence last year, the Scottish National Party seems to have beat Cameron at his own game. It won 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats at Westminster.
This is big. The Scots may now force another referendum onto the agenda. The SNP will also hold Cameron to all those extravagant promises he made the weekend before last year’s vote—this just as Cameron’s far right, which resisted the PM’s commitments back then, comes into its own.
On the flip side, Tea Party Tories are expected to force Cameron to introduce legislation giving English MPs veto power over bills pertaining to England alone (whatever they may consist of).
The summary: In the name of keeping the U.K. united, Cameron’s victory last week brings him several steps closer to pulling it apart. As Steve Erlanger wrote in the Times Saturday, “In essence, England and Scotland are today not one nation but two, each dominated by a single party.”
• The European question. Cameron has long promised a referendum by the end of 2017 on Britain’s E.U. membership. He’ll now be forced but quick to chisel this in stone, given that the line between right-wing Tories and the United Kingdom Independence Party, Ukip, is often a blur.
A lot can happen in two years, so let’s skip the predictions. This much can be said, though: Time’s on the wrong side here. The prospects of a “Brexit” wax as Ukip and its Tory allies make common cause, and the markets already fret. And as Erlanger points out, the Scots are pro-Europe; a vote down south against Europe stands to push them further toward independence.
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