EDINBURGH — In the months leading up to Thursday's general election in the U.K., a consensus was reached by British political commentators: Neither Labour nor the Conservatives would secure an overall majority in the House of Commons. Instead, the vote would be followed by protracted negotiations between disparate parliamentary forces hoping to cobble together a coalition.
The soothsayers were off, and by some margin.
When the first exit poll was published last night, at precisely 10 p.m., those predictions were quickly jettisoned. Incumbent Prime Minister David Cameron and his Conservative Party were set for a comfortable victory. By early Friday afternoon, after all the ballots were counted, the Conservatives had won 37 percent of the popular vote and 331 of Westminster's 650 parliamentary seats. Labour had mustered just 30 percent of the vote and 232 seats. The rout suffered by the hapless Liberal Democrats — junior partner in the Tory-led coalition before the vote — was worse, clinging to just eight of their 57 seats.
This was a high-stakes election centered on economic issues.
The Tories argued that Britain's 90 billion pound ($130 billion) budget deficit should be eliminated quickly through a program of deep spending cuts designed to fundamentally change the role of the state. Labour set out a more moderate plan based on a mix of cuts and tax increases on high earners.
Going into Thursday’s vote, there was little indication that the outcome for Labour would be as bad as it was.
Party leader Ed Miliband was generally regarded as having fought a good campaign. Despite attempts to belittle him as a socially awkward geek, confident performances in a series of televised debates attracted widespread praise. By contrast, Cameron, who limited his exposure to the public by appearing at stage-managed events attended by handpicked audience members, often looked aloof.
But as the results began to stream in, it became clear there had been no sizable swing against the Conservatives — needed if Labour were to wrest control or at least be better placed to form a minority-led government. In a range of key contested seats in southern England and the Midlands, the Tories gained ground at Labour's expense.
Labour ended up with no mandate and without some of its most recognizable faces. In one of the biggest shocks of the night, the party’s pugnacious shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, was ousted by the Tories in the West Yorkshire constituency of Morley and Outwood by 422 votes.
Two key factors account for Labour's defeat. The first was Miliband's failure to counter the accusation of fiscal mismanagement that has dogged the party since the 2008 financial crisis, which struck when he was a minister in the last Labour government. The second was his inability to persuade voters that he was a prime minister in waiting. Despite running the stronger campaign, Miliband always trailed Cameron in opinion polls on the question of leadership.
At 11:30 a.m. Friday, Miliband announced his resignation as Labour leader. "I take absolute and total responsibility for our defeat at this election," he said. "We may have lost the election, but the argument of our campaign will not go away. The issue of our unequal country will not go away. This is the challenge of our time. The fight goes on."
With Miliband's departure, the post-mortem can begin. Labour faces a bruising internal battle over its future electoral strategy.
"A fierce debate will now take place within the party over whether it lost because it drifted too far from [Tony Blair's] New Labour or rather did not drift far enough," George Eaton, the political editor of the left-leaning New Statesman magazine, wrote this morning.
"Those from the party's right will point to Miliband's refusal to state that the last [Labour] government spent too much. But those on the left will criticize his decision to promise to moderate austerity, rather than to end it."
As badly as Labour fared in England, it fared worse north of the border. It was reduced to just one seat in Scotland — the country where the party was founded 115 years ago.
The separatist Scottish National Party (SNP) — shrugging off the disappointment of a defeat in the referendum on Scottish independence last September — won 56 out of Scotland's 59 Westminster seats, eviscerating Labour throughout its traditional west coast and Central Belt heartlands.
Among the high-profile victims of the SNP landslide were Douglas Alexander, Labour's election campaign manager and shadow foreign secretary, who lost to Mhairi Black, a 20-year-old Glasgow University student; Margaret Curran, Labour's shadow secretary of state for Scotland; and most significant of all, Jim Murphy, the leader of the Labour Party in Scotland.
The Conservatives' former coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, were also routed by the SNP, losing 10 of their 11 Scottish seats. Government ministers Danny Alexander, the chief secretary to the treasury under Tory Chancellor George Osborne, and Jo Swinson, the parliamentary undersecretary of state for employment relations, had their majorities wiped out in the nationalist surge.
The SNP's success will deepen existing tensions in its relationship with the rest of the U.K. and intensify the debate over Britain's constitutional future. Speaking outside Downing Street this afternoon, Cameron reiterated his commitment to deliver additional tax powers to Holyrood, Scotland's devolved legislature, and to address growing demands among English voters for a distinct system of English political representation.
"I will make Holyrood the strongest devolved government anywhere in the world, with a new set of tax powers," he said. "And no constitutional settlement would be complete if it did not offer fairness to England."
But with the center-left SNP agitating for greater autonomy in Scotland and the center-right Conservatives in England giving voice to English national concerns, it seems unlikely that the union will last, at least in its current form.
"There is no more British party system," said professor Michael Keating, the director of the Centre on Constitutional Change in Edinburgh. "Today's result undermines one of the key features of our multinational state — the ability of political parties to tie the component parts together."
"The next U.K. government is pledged to take forward constitutional reform," he added "This process will now come to look more like a negotiation between Scotland and England rather than a search for consensus."
The irony is that until yesterday, Labour was the only party capable of winning votes throughout the U.K. and governing on behalf of the whole of the U.K. (The Tories have just one MP in Scotland, and the SNP don't stand in England.) Labour's weakness on both sides of the England-Scotland border is bound to loosen the increasingly threadbare ties that bind the United Kingdom together. And with the Conservatives pledged to stage a referendum on Britain's membership in the European Union by the end of 2017, the potential for a decisive rupture in British politics seems to be growing all the time.