The polls shut at 10 pm on Thursday, May 7. A minute later, the exit polls appeared on our TV screens. The prediction was stunning. The result was reminiscent of the Indian election of 2009. The polls had been forecasting a hung Parliament. All sorts of coalition combinations were being bandied about. Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon who was one hero of the campaign (and whose party swept Scotland with 56 out of 59 seats) was arguing that even if Labour was not the largest single but only the second largest party, they could still form the government together.
But the pollsters proved wrong. They had been telling us that the share of votes of the two main parties would stay somewhere around 34 or 35 per cent each. The seats were predicted to be in the region of 285/275, with the Conservatives ahead. We all knew that the SNP was likely to get around 45 seats, up from six in the last Parliament. This would mean that Labour which had 41 seats in Scotland out of its total of 258 would lose in Scotland and would need to win extra seats in England and Wales. That in the event proved an impossible task. Labour ended up losing seats over its previous level, 26 fewer at 232 only. Ed Miliband resigned as leader of the party. In the UK, leaders do not linger if they have lost the election.
The Liberal Democrats got wiped out. They had been coalition partners in the last government with their 57 seats, of which they lost 49, ending up with only eight. Nick Clegg survived but most other Cabinet members from the LibDems lost. Nick Clegg also resigned from his leadership.
It was David Cameron who surprised everyone by winning not just the largest number of seats but also a majority. Here again was an echo of India 2014. By getting 330 out of 650 seats, he has proved his critics wrong. He had already announced that he would not seek a third term early in the campaign. He was much mocked for that. But he has done something which very few British political party leaders have been able to do. He has won two consecutive elections. Thatcher did it, as did Blair, and Wilson did it twice. But the three apart, no one else in the entire 20th century managed that feat.
Cameron is easily underestimated. When I was in Delhi, I was told that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has visited France and Germany but not the UK because he had been told that Cameron was a busted flush. Yet he also was among the first to congratulate Cameron.
There is a lot similar between the two. They are strategists and they can use expert advice well. Lynton Crosby is the Australian polling expert who has shaped Cameron’s campaign. He was much criticised for advising Cameron not to take part in a straight debate between himself and Miliband. But while Miliband’s American adviser David Axelrod also cost thousands of pounds, as Crosby does, the genius of Crosby got Cameron re-elected.
Why did the Conservatives win? They told the citizens in 2010 that it was going to be very tough. Deficits were high and debts had piled up. George Osborne, the Chancellor of Exchequer, put through a tough austerity programme to cut the deficit. He was much criticised about the pain this caused. In the end, he could only halve the deficit from 10 to 5 per cent. But he never wavered and did not compromise his strategy by adopting short-term bribes for the electorate. The economy began to recover in the fourth year and is now one of the fastest growing economies in the G7. The voters liked candour and rewarded the Conservatives.
If there is a lesson for India, it is in the contrasting fortunes of a disciplined fiscal policy versus one that wanted to please the voters by reducing the pain. The party which did not mind being unpopular by telling the unvarnished truth finally got the people’s approval. To tackle the long run structural weaknesses of an economy, a leader has to take unpopular measures in the short run.