As he spends the day reshuffling his Cabinet, David Cameron stands unchallenged at the top of English politics, with Miliband and Clegg forever vanquished and Farage’s future uncertain. Sturgeon did well, of course, but is for now safely contained North of the border. Under a Conservative majority Government, the SNP have much less clout than she had boasted they’d wield. Leadership contests will distract all the major parties in the coming months – creating a vacuum of opposition – whilst David Cameron (remarkably) presides, for the moment, over all he surveys.
In light of the unexpected nature of his triumph, Cameron is determined not to waste this moment. He is a Prime Minister who is unusually conscious of politics’ capacity for creating surprise and disappointment – having spent five years staring his own defeat in the face, working within the confines of an often-frustrating coalition. He intends to seize this opportunity.
That said, Cameron’s majority is small and history bodes ill for diminutive Conservative Governments. Party management will be crucial to the success or failure of this Government – hence this reshuffle emphasis on continuity. It avoids creating new enemies and throws posts freed up by departing Lib Dems at factions in the party who need buying off. May, Osborne and Hammond all cling on to the major offices of state, for now. The Chancellor was always safe, of course, and will now be wondering whether he might after all stand a real chance of succeeding his friend at the very top one day. May and Hammond have been kept in post, in part, because to move them would be to risk creating a locus of internal resentment and rebellion. He cannot yet afford to chance such a destabilising move.
John Whittingdale’s elevation – from Chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee to Secretary of State for the same Department – is a firm, friendly signal to the right. He was an aide to Thatcher and has won plaudits for his outspoken attacks on the BBC licence fee. What’s more, he is a vocal campaigner against press regulation and a Leveson-sceptic; his is a totemic appointment designed to appease the drier wing of the Tory Party and express gratitude to cheerleaders in right-wing newspapers. There is a continuity feel to this latest line-up, for certain, but you can expect a bigger reshuffle a year from now – once Boris is free of the Mayoralty.
In the meantime, bound by his promise to concentrate on finishing the job in London, Boris is merely an attendee of Political Cabinet. This is probably the best of both worlds as far as both he and Cameron are concerned. For at least a year, the Prime Minister is relieved from any obligation to find his ‘frenemy’ a Cabinet role of any import. Meanwhile, Boris has twelve or so months to try to make friends on the backbenches – where, despite his appeal as a ‘prince across the water’, he sometimes lacks comradely ties. This is suddenly more important to Johnson’s prospects in a future leadership contest than it was just weeks ago. With Cameron’s victory, an Osborne ascendency becomes more possible which means that the army of FoGs (Friends of George’s) who had been expected to flock to Boris’ side in the event of a defeat will now feel conflicted about who earns their support when the time comes.
Labour, of course, faces the grim process of post-mortem. Whilst there were fears that the party would end up locked out of Government by a Tory-Lib-Dem pact, very few in the party believed that they would be beaten so comprehensively. Not only have the Conservative Party achieved a majority but Labour has been driven out of Scotland almost completely and has failed to make significant progress across much of England. What happens next? A leadership and deputy leadership contest is already taking shape – and it looks likely, once the NEC have met on Wednesday, to be plotted over at least the next six months. But there will also be a deeper and more reflective conversation about the purpose and political mission of Labour. In that context, the likes of Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham bring experience but also a vast amount of baggage whilst Liz Kendall, Chuka Umunna and Tristram Hunt are relatively untested but offer hope of finally moving on from leaders defined – in part – by previous Governments. Today’s news that Dan Jarvis, the charismatic former para-trooper, has ruled himself out has drawn sighs of relief from Tory staffers.
For the Lib Dems too, a new Leader must be selected. Liberal Democrat rules dictate that, in order to become a candidate, an MP must have the support of 10% of their Parliamentary colleagues. Given there are only eight Lib Dem MPs left, that requires prospective replacements for Clegg to secure 0.8 of a signature each. As predicted, the leading contenders are Tim Farron (broadly representing the Left of the Party) and Norman Lamb (who is perceived as an Orange Booker). It is difficult to see how Farron can be beaten – he has deep and broad activist support, including endorsements of the Leaders of the Scottish and Welsh Liberal Democrats and he refused to participate in the Coalition Government.
As for UKIP, Farage resigned – but only – it seems – briefly. After losing Thanet South, Farage technically speaking kept his promise and stood down. Initially, he left the door open to re-stand for his old job once the summer is over. But in an act of solidarity, the UKIP executive today unanimously rejected his resignation claiming that their Election campaign was a great success. The move means they hold on to their charismatic figurehead and further emphasises the oddity of a voting system which saw more people vote for them than the SNP but only returned them one Member of Parliament compared to Sturgeon’s fifty six.
No-one expected the election to end this way. Except, perhaps, for Lynton Crosby. As Labour and the Lib Dems deal with the fallout of results that are far worse than they had dared to consider, they now distract themselves with leadership battles – bread and circuses for politicos and commentators alike. But they both have a more profound set of questions to ask themselves. Because it surely wasn’t simply the quality of their spokespeople that led to this shock result. The quality of the offers themselves is also in doubt. And so it is not just new leaders that are on the cards but new ideas, new politics and a whole new approach. It’s continuity for Cameron and co but revolution for all the rest.