Friday morning, David Cameron returned to Downing Street as Britain's prime minister. After a campaign of unsurpassed tedium, the General Election came alive last night with the first exit poll, and a Conservative victory out of nowhere. For weeks, the incumbent Conservatives and the Labour opposition had been neck and neck. Both polled around 35 percent, and both looked set to capture around 275 seats in the House of Commons, well short of the 323 seats needed for a working majority. And for weeks, the pundits had been constructing hypothetical coalitions.
Could David Cameron retain power by forming a coalition with Nick Clegg's pro-EU Liberal Democrats, and the insurgents of the anti-EU UK Independence Party? Or would Ed Milliband lead a minority Labour government, supported informally by the Scottish Nationalists, a socialist party that wishes to leave the United Kingdom? Governed since 2010 by the first peacetime coalition in a century, Britain seemed to have entered a new era of European-style politics: implausible coalitions, united by ambition not principle. As election day neared, opinion polls suggested the least principled outcome, a Labour-SNP alliance that boded poorly for Britain's economic recovery and constitutional integrity. The markets and the pound wavered accordingly.
But at 10 pm Thursday night local time, the exit polls confounded both pollsters and pundits. Suddenly, the Conservatives looked set to win 316 seats, giving Cameron a choice of coalition partners. Labour's vote had collapsed to below 250 seats. By Friday morning, the swing had turned into a bona fide rout.
With three seats still yet to declare, the Conservatives have 327 seats, and are expected to end up with 329. Labour has collapsed to 232, and the Liberal Democrats are down from 55 seats to 8. Ed Milliband and Nick Clegg have resigned. The leader of the Scottish Labour Party has no need to resign: He lost his seat to the Scottish Nationalists, who have almost swept the board in Scotland, where Labour lost 45 of its 46 Scottish seats. The old joke had it that there were more pandas in Scotland than Conservative MPs. Today, Labour is no longer laughing.
What went wrong for the experts, and right for the Conservatives? In the advance polls, large numbers of voters declared for the protest parties, the Liberal Democrats and UKIP, or for the party of the Undecided. In the booth, they voted Conservative. British pundits see a last-minute rally of historic Conservative voters, roused by the prospect of the Scottish Nationalists in power at Westminster. But there may be another reason. We could call it the Thatcher Effect.
The polls were wrong because the polled lied to the pollsters. Some voters may have switched back to the Conservatives at the last moment, but many of them may have intended to vote Conservative all along, but were too embarrassed to admit it. The Conservatives have never been cool; notoriously, the Nineties' prime minster John Major tucked his shirt into his underwear. And since Mrs. Thatcher, the Conservatives have remained the 'Nasty Party' in many parts of the country, and in many professions. Thatcher's exit polls underestimated her count of seats: people voted for her, but these “Shy Tories” then said they hadn't. Something similar may have happened in this election. In American elections, voters may misrepresent their choices if a black candidate is running; the Bradley Effect. Last night, the Thatcher Effect made Britain's race seem closer than it was.
But it was still close. The Conservatives have won, and Cameron has ditched his Liberal Democrat coalition partners. The Liberals have collapsed, and UKIP have only one seat. Labour is likely to fall into civil war as the party reckons with Tony Blair's legacy. Nevertheless, the landscape of British politics has changed, and may continue to do so in Cameron's second term. The Scottish Nationalists failed to win last year's referendum on leaving the United Kingdom, but their massive victory in Scotland suggests that the UK's constitutional future is unknown.
So too does Cameron's victory. Cameron campaigned on a promise to give Britons a referendum on EU membership. Sympathetic to the Euroskeptics, he can now pursue that referendum without having to compromise with a coalition partner. The EU could survive a 'Grexit', but could its currency survive a vote of no confidence from Britain?
Dominic Green, PhD, is the author of The Double Life of Dr. Lopez and Three Empires on the Nile.