For now, Cameron is the man who delivered the impossible
His enemies within the Conservatives believed the party leader was about to fall short
David Cameron and his wife, Samantha, are applauded by staff upon entering 10 Downing Street after visiting the queen. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/AFP/Getty Images
Former British prime minister John Major once said that every general election campaign run by any political party is a shambles until the results come in. Then, the victorious ones are deemed to have been cunningly clever from the beginning.
The Major dictum is worth remembering in the wake of the Conservatives’ stunned joy following the release of the BBC exit poll at 10pm yesterday that predicted that they would win 316 seats. In the end, they won even more.
Greeting the dawn, even Boris Johnson seemed, for once, lost for words, declaring that the Conservatives, then on the verge of winning a House of Commons majority, had “won in places that we never thought we would win”.
“The good sense of the British people at the last minute made the difference,” said Johnson, as a subsequent prediction put the Conservatives on 325 seats, which still did not the capture the full fruits of the night.
Soon, the victory will become the Conservatives’ birthright. But it has ever been thus. However, the following vignette graphically illustrates that the scale of the extraordinary victory was beyond even its wildest imaginings.
Seconds after 9.55pm yesterday, an email from the Conservative Party dropped into inboxes of selected senior figures in the London media world, just minutes before the BBC exit poll. Did it predict the result? Far from it.
Instead, it put forward attack lines that the Conservatives wanted to circulate in the critical few hours before much of Britain went to bed, arguments that it believed then would be necessary to prepare for the manoeuvring for advantage in the days and week ahead.
The Conservatives, according to this email, did not even need to be the largest party in the House of Commons to have won the right to have the opening crack at forming a government. Instead, incumbency alone gave David Cameron first dibs.
Cameron can be faulted, like everyone else, for failiing to predict the result accurately. However, he can argue with little fear of opposition that he owes few others in his party credit for the victory, given the criticisms the campaign suffered from within his own ranks.
The messaging was incoherent, said some. The Conservatives could not figure out what their primary target was, said others. It had failed to drive the message to voters that the economy was coming right and their future was better entrusted to the Conservatives. The list went on.
The expensively acquired Australian strategist Lynton Crosby had besmirched the Conservatives’ name by sending defence secretary Michael Fallon to accuse Ed Miliband of being prepared “to stab his country in the back over Trident, in the same way that he had stabbed his brother”.
Crosby and Cameron, but even more often the chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, had told MPs for more than a year that the Conservatives’ and Labour’s support would “cross over”. The date for the epiphany was delayed and delayed.
However, the basic architecture of the campaign worked, even if he has sown seeds that he may one day harvest with tears, worked, particularly when it comes to safeguarding the future of the United Kingdom itself – an entity he deemed last year to be precious beyond words.
The Conservatives relentlessly targeted Liberal Democrat seats in England, particularly in the West Country, which saw Cameron even spending much of the second-last Sunday in the campaign in Norton-sub-Hamden, a beautiful Midsomer Murders-style village in Somerset.
The time management seemed madness. The Liberal Democrats holder of the seat, David Laws, enjoyed a 14,000-strong majority, and a good local reputation. In the end, Cameron was right. Law was beaten by 6,000 votes.
Equally, he ordered the portrayal of Ed Miliband as snug in former Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond’s breast-pocket, as he endeavoured to drive home the message to voters in England that they would unfairly pay for Scottish influence in Westminster.
The strategy worked in two ways. It hurt Labour in England, but it also hurt it in Scotland, where Cameron’s anti-Scottish rhetoric – as it was perceived by Scots, since they could hardly hear it any other way – made many more determined to vote for the Scottish National Party.
Conscious that he was too often seen as a bruiser in the campaign, Cameron sought today, speaking outside No 10, to spread words of peace, praising Liberal Democrats’ leader Nick Clegg for working so hard to make the 2010 coalition that began in No 10’s Rose Garden a success.
“Elections can be bruising clashes of ideas and arguments. A lot of people who believe profoundly in public service have seen that service cut short. Ed Miliband rang me this morning to wish me luck with the new government. It was a typically generous gesture from someone who is clearly in public service for all the right reasons. The government I led did important work. It laid the foundations for a better future, and now we must build on them,” he said.
For now, Cameron is the man who has delivered the impossible: a Conservative majority – the first since Major pulled his own Houdini-like escape in 1992, but Cameron has done it in an era when politics has become more fragmented than ever.
His enemies within the Conservatives had been readying to circle against him, believing that he was about to fall short. Boris Johnson looked deflated when he realised the scale of Cameron’s victory. So, too, did others. The daggers will have to be sheathed for now.