by Luke Coffey
UK Prime Minister David Cameron celebrated after winning a largely unexpected victory in the UK general election, but the prime minister’s wafer-thin majority means that introducing his policies is a threat from both his political opponents and the rebels within his own Conservative Party. There is cross-party concern about the nation’s role in the world in light of recent budget cuts, and he faces challenges over Britain staying in Europe – and Scotland staying in the UK.
David Cameron shocked the pollsters and pundits when he led his Conservative Party to victory in the May 2015 UK General Election. With only 331 seats out of 650, his majority of 12 seats is small but workable.
The opinion polls had predicted a ‘hung’ parliament in which no party had an overall majority.
The Conservatives’ coalition partners in the last government, the Liberal Democrats, were virtually wiped out, reduced from 57 MPs to just eight. They suffered their greatest losses in Scotland and southwest England – both regions considered to be traditional bases of grassroots support.
The Labour Party also had a massive setback in Scotland, where it lost all but one of its 40 MPs to the Scottish National Party (SNP).
Several Labour grandees lost their seats across the UK, including the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, Ed Balls, and Shadow Foreign Secretary, Douglas Alexander, who led his party’s election campaign.
The latter lost his seat to 20-year-old Glasgow University student Mhairi Black of the SNP – making her the youngest MP since 1667.
This election also marked the fourth straight poll in which Labour lost seats.
The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) won only one seat, because of the ‘first past the post’ system used in parliamentary elections, even though it received 3.9 million votes nationwide and came second in 125 constituencies. Its leader, Nigel Farage, resigned and then ‘unresigned’ only a few days later with much fanfare and controversy.
Even though David Cameron no longer needs to negotiate policies with a coalition partner, with his small majority he will need to worry about keeping the different views inside his own party in line.
Sinn Fein, the Irish nationalist party, does not take its four Northern Ireland seats in the House of Commons, so Mr Cameron’s working majority is actually 16.
The Conservatives can also count on parliamentary support from the eight MPs of the centre-right Democratic Unionist Party, two MPs from the centre-right Ulster Unionist Party – both parties are from Northern Ireland – and the one UKIP MP, on most issues. However, their backing cannot be always guaranteed.
The prime minister will need to do all he can to maintain his fragile majority. No party with a majority of fewer than 10 MPs has lasted more than a couple of years in government since the end of the First World War in 1918, with the sole exception of the Harold Wilson-James Callaghan government of 1974-1979. That ended with the ‘Winter of Discontent’, which saw a wave of crippling strikes across the UK and led to the election of Margaret Thatcher.
Although international affairs did not feature prominently during the election campaign, there is cross-party concern about Britain’s role in the world in light of recent budget cuts by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and Ministry of Defence (MoD).
The Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition cut defence spending by eight per cent during the last Parliament, and removed from service Britain’s aircraft carriers and Harrier jets, while also cutting thousands of service personnel from the ranks.
The UK still remained above Nato’s requirement for defence spending – two per cent of GDP – even with these reductions. Mr Cameron pledged to increase the equipment section of the defence budget by one per cent between 2015 and 2020, but it is unlikely this will be enough to purchase much of the new equipment the military requires.
Britain still plays an active, albeit reduced, role on the international stage. The prime minister has committed to meeting the guideline established by the UN Millennium Project of spending 0.7 per cent of GDP on international aid.
The FCO’s budget is only £1.5 billion – a paltry sum in comparison with the £9.9 billion the UK spent on the 2012 London Olympics, for example.
The UK has opened new embassies and consulates in recent years in places including Somalia, Laos and Kyrgyzstan. British exports to China have doubled since 2009, and economic ties with India have expanded. Britain even joined the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), against US advice.
The impact of defence cuts has been felt. For example, after the vote during the last parliament against launching airstrikes in Syria, the UK is now limited to fighting ISIS in Iraq only.
It currently carries out the largest number of airstrikes there of any country in the coalition after the US, but this is not so much a testament to British strength as of the weakness of the coalition.
Britain has also played a leading role inside Nato reassuring Central and Eastern European members who feel threatened by Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine.
It was the first European country to send extra ground troops to the Baltic states after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and has been a steadfast supporter of and contributor to Nato’s Baltic Air Policing mission.
Britain has also deployed a small number of military trainers to Ukraine, but on the diplomatic side it has been notably absent, unlike Germany and France, from the ceasefire talks between Kiev and Russia.
Perhaps the biggest foreign policy challenge David Cameron faces during this Parliament will be Britain’s relationship with Europe.
He has committed to holding an ‘in/out’ referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union (EU), an issue which featured prominently during the election. The European Union Referendum Bill was one of the first pieces of legislation submitted by the Conservatives in the new parliament.
The government’s official position is that the UK’s interests are best served by remaining in a ‘reformed’ EU and Mr Cameron has already started his ‘European tour’ to convince his counterparts that change is needed.
Expect negotiations to focus on three important areas:
• Giving new powers to national parliaments
• Opting Britain out of the idea of ‘ever closer union’, a term first used in the preamble to the 1957 Treaty of Rome which has since become the rallying cry for Euro-Federalists
• Deterring the number of EU migrants to the UK by cutting their social welfare benefits. This is the most controversial demand across European capitals, and would probably require a treaty change.
Even though the Scottish people voted against the idea of independence in September 2014, the SNP now holds 56 of the 59 parliamentary seats in Scotland. In the 2010 poll it won just six. However, it is worth pointing out that the manifesto on which the SNP won its recent landslide election victory made no pledge to hold another independence referendum.
With its new role as the third largest party in the House of Commons, the SNP will have two main goals during this parliament:
• Undermine and stop the Conservative Party’s economic policies of austerity
• Obtain more devolved powers for Scotland.
After the independence referendum Mr Cameron commissioned a report on the best way to take forward commitments made during the campaign in Scotland by the three traditional main UK political parties, Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrats, each now left with just one Scottish seat at Westminster.
Among other things, the report recommended that the Edinburgh-based Scottish Parliament should have greater tax-raising powers. Under the terms of the Scotland Bill 2015 the administration will be responsible for more than 50 per cent of its funding.
Scottish independence would have major geopolitical consequences. Since the UK’s nuclear deterrent is based in Scotland – the Trident submarines operate from Faslane near Glasgow on the River Clyde – a new home would be needed, and there are few realistic possibilities.
Nato membership for an independent Scotland would not be guaranteed, at least automatically, and this could have implications for North Sea security, an area which has seen a lot of Russian activity in the past few years.
With a razor-thin majority, the Conservative Party will act quickly on its legislative agenda to take advantage of the disarray of the Labour opposition as it elects a leader to succeed Ed Miliband, who resigned after Labour’s election defeat.
Most likely scenarios:
If Mr Cameron is successful, the Conservatives will stay in power until 2020, hold the EU ballot by 2017, review human rights legislation and keep unemployment low.
• The government survives the duration of the Parliament even with its small majority
• The European Union Referendum Bill is passed and there is an ‘in/out’ referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU by the end of 2017
• There are further cuts to the FCO and MoD budgets, but spending on international aid remains protected at the 0.7 per cent of GDP level
• A Strategic Defence and Security Review is conducted before the end of 2015 which more than probably coincides with the publication of the next three-year spending review – the Comprehensive Spending Review – in the autumn
• The UK maintains a continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent based on the Trident missile system, but defence spending in total falls below Nato’s required two per cent of GDP
• UKIP remains a popular protest movement and plays a major role in the debate leading up to the EU referendum
• The UK scraps the Human Rights Act and replaces it with a ’British Bill of Rights’ but remains a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights
• The government pursues pro-business policies and proposes legislation aimed at promoting innovation and entrepreneurship in order to keep unemployment levels at their current lows of around 5.5 per cent
• The SNP includes a commitment in its 2016 Scottish election manifesto to have another independence referendum.
Less likely scenarios:
These would see another Scottish independence referendum during the current parliament, British troops on the ground in Iraq and a withdrawal from the European Convention of Human Rights.
• The in/out EU referendum is held earlier than 2017
• The UK is able to negotiate a reformed relationship with the EU without requiring a treaty change
• The SNP succeeds in holding another independence referendum between now and the end of the current parliament in 2020
• The SNP exerts major influence in the House of Commons to the detriment of the government’s legislative agenda
• Defence spending in the UK remains above Nato’s requirement of two per cent of GDP.
• Britain deploys ground troops to fight ISIS in Iraq and expands airstrikes to include Syria
• The UK plays a major role in future ceasefire negotiations between Russia and Ukraine
• The UK leaves the European Convention of Human Rights.
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Source: Geopolitical Information Service