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British PM David Cameron confounds polls to win second term

(BBC)…British prime minister David Cameron has confounded pollsters and pundits by winning a sensational second five-year term in office for his Conservative party.

This time Cameron will be free from the constraints of coalition with the centrist Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dems, Cameron’s partners in office since 2010, were almost wiped out, and their leader, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, resigned on Friday morning.

Cameron’s victory in Thursday’s general election obliterated opposition leader Ed Miliband’s hopes of eking out a small win for Labour. Miliband also resigned in the wake of the defeat.

But it came at the price for the Tories of stunning success for the separatist Scottish National party (SNP) north of the border.

With all 650 seats declared, the Conservatives had 331, Labour 232, the SNP 56 and the Liberal Democrats eight. In practice 323 Members of Parliament is the number needed to form a majority government.

As Cameron drove to Buckingham Palace to notify Queen Elizabeth II that she had a new government from day one, rather than the chaotic search for a viable cross-party coalition of either the right or the left, Miliband resigned as Labour leader, shocked by the scale of his rejection by the electorate. Among the night’s casualties were a raft of senior Labour figures, including his shadow chancellor Ed Balls, defeated in Leeds.

The result was a vindication of Cameron’s much-criticized decision to run a largely negative campaign, stressing the risks to Britain’s still-fragile economic recovery of a Labour government that would overspend and drive away investors through taxes aimed at the wealthy and their tax-avoiding practices.

But the prime minister’s victory was partly the product of a relentless Conservative campaign to highlight the dangers of a Labour minority government propped up by the left-leaning SNP in Scotland – and this polarizes Britain in an unprecedented way. Critics have protested that the outcome, a tactical success in England, could accelerate the breakup of the United Kingdom.

 

It is a development which the US, EU and other allies, including those in Nato, fear because it would weaken Britain’s international standing and place a question over its Trident submarine nuclear defence capability – currently based in the Holy Loch in Scotland.

But financial markets responded strongly to news of a Conservative win – which lifted the Labour threat of higher corporate and personal taxes for the City of London, along with more stringent regulation.

The Scottish result may be the more significant overnight development. The SNP, which lost a referendum to end the 308-year union with England last September, won all but a handful of Scotland’s 59 seats, dozens of them from Labour in a region that was once a stronghold for the party and opening the way to significant influence in Britain’s 650-seat Westminster parliament as Cameron’sConservatives seek to govern with a slender majority.

With his own key cabinet allies – including veteran business secretary Vince Cable – also punished with defeat by voters, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg resigned as leader of his Liberal Democrat party on Friday morning. He was one of only a handful of his party’s 57 MPs to hang on to his seat, in the northern industrial city of Sheffield.

 

 

Ukip, the rightwing populist party that favours British withdrawal from the European Union, won 4 million votes but only a single seat, due to the vagaries of Britain’s electoral system, built for two large parties and now creaking under the weight of many smaller ones. Its leader, Nigel Farage, long a member of the European parliament in Strasbourg but desperate to gain a platform at Westminster, failed to win his seat and resigned as party leader … although he left open the door for a return.

Equally disappointed were the leftwing Greens, with 1 million votes under Britain’s winner-take-all voting system but just one seat to show for it.

The five-week campaign had been marked by negative mud-slinging all round, with Labour accusing Cameron of being an elitist, keen only to protect the rich during the prolonged recession since 2008. Cameron and his chancellor George Osborne could point to a recovery which saw UK growth at 2.8% last year and two million new jobs created, a better performance than that of the struggling eurozone across the English Channel.

But many British voters outside the prosperous south-east of England did not feel the benefit amid low wages and fast rising house prices. They remained skeptical about all parties’ promises – lower taxes, better services, more housing – but opted, in what appears to have been a late swing to the Tories, for the familiar “safety first” option rather than take a risk with Miliband.

Clegg’s Liberal Democrats, who shocked many supporters by accepting coalition office with the hated Conservatives in 2010, claimed they had helped provide stable government after the banking crisis but paid the price on Thursday. Voters defected back to Labour or to the Tories in large numbers. Rather than split Cameron’s vote, some disaffected Tories reneged on their threat to vote Ukip and stayed at home.

 

Despite not being a candidate on Thursday – she sits in the regional Scottish parliament – Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, who succeeded Alex Salmond after the 55% to 45% defeat for the independence campaign in September, proved to be the election’s star performer. In TV debates with a combination of up to six rival leaders she emerged as fluent, confident and determined to put some leftwing fire into a Miliband-led government if she had a veto.

That scenario impressed Labour-voting Scots who flocked to her banner on Thursday and all but wiped out Labour in its northern heartland. Among those falling was that held until last month by Gordon Brown, Labour’s UK prime minister until 2010. What the SNP triumph means for the long term is the largest question today’s result poses for Britain.

For now Labour is due to undergo another leadership contest and as the focus turns to possible candidates questions are already being asked about the willingness of David Miliband – whom younger brother Ed defeated for the leadership in 2005 – to return to Britain and stand again.

David Miliband is now in New York, where he runs the International Rescue refugee charity. At his Upper West Side apartment on Thursday night, a doorman said he had left town for the weekend. “Was he expecting you?”

No, he was told; we’re reporters from the Guardian.

“I think that’s why he left,” the doorman said.

Additional reporting by Oliver Laughland in New York

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