Conservatives seek to ‘hit the ground running’ with new agenda

By Andrew Hammond

Wednesday’s Queens Speech set out the new Conservative Government’s legislative agenda following the remarkable General Election outcome.  Some 26 bills were announced with an agenda that includes more devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and “English votes for English laws" at Westminster.

Defying pre-election opinion polls, the Conservatives won an overall majority on May 7, the first incumbent party to gain seats for over 30 years -- since Margaret Thatcher's second victory in 1983.  The Tory victory has important implications for both UK domestic and foreign policy, including the prospect of an 'in-out' EU referendum in or before 2017.  

Given that some polls show around half of the UK populace are opposed to continued membership of the EU, this could see Britain exiting.  This would be opposed by much of the UK business community, and could now have a chilling effect on global inward investment decisions by internationally-headquartered firms basing themselves in Britain as a hub within the EU.

The Tory victory, with a small overall majority in the House of Commons is a spectacular outcome, especially coming with the strong showing of the Scottish Nationalists (SNP) in Scotland.  The SNP have almost wiped out all other parties in that country, undermining Labour's previous dominance of Westminster contests there.

Labour Party Leader Ed Miliband has stood down, as has Nick Clegg whose Liberal Democrats have lost most of their parliamentary seats.  This will further cement the position of Prime Minister David Cameron, in the immediate term, as both Labour and the Liberal Democrats will face internal leadership contests in coming weeks.

In this context, the Conservatives will now try to push ahead with their agenda in many areas as speedily as possible.  In part, this is because the Government realises there are major challenges on the medium-term horizon, including Scotland and Europe, which could yet knock it off course. 
The Conservative majority in the House of Commons is even less now than in 1992 when John Major won a famous victory which also surprised pollsters.  Major's administration was subsequently beset with by-elections and defections and eventually he lost his majority in December 1996, but survived as a minority administration until the May 1997 General Election.  

While Cameron is now in a stronger position than anticipated before the election, he will be aware that his small majority places limits on his ambitions, and it could be precarious to govern for a full term of office.  That said, there are precedents for governments other than Major's from 1992 to 1997, with small majorities, to survive for significant periods of time. 

In October 1974, for instance, Labour won election with an outright majority, but over time, this eroded.  In 1977, with a now minority government, then-Prime Minister Jim Callaghan negotiated the so-called 'Lib-Lab' pact, which secured the support of Liberals on votes of no confidence.  
This sustained the administration until the pact ended in 1978, during a period when Labour was facing significant opposition, including intraparty, to public spending reductions to help pay for the 1976 International Monetary Fund loan.  Callaghan ultimately lost power in 1979.

Aside from the unexpected success of the Conservatives on May 7, a dominant theme of this year's election campaign has not been the two 'major' parties, but the rise of third party alternatives other than the Liberal Democrats.  The SNP had an especially good night increasing the number of seats it holds in Scotland massively to 56.

This now makes the party a major player in Westminster, especially in the context of a small Tory majority.  This could not just have profound implications for the balance of power in Westminster, but also the territorial integrity on the United Kingdom in future years, and a second Scottish independence referendum cannot be ruled out.

This would be especially likely if the United Kingdom does vote to leave the EU.  Scots are disproportionately in favour of continued British membership, and this issue could easily be championed by the SNP in future years as a reason why the country should break away from the United Kingdom and become an independent state within the EU.

Taken overall, the UK election result yielded a remarkable and unexpected outcome.  While the small majority of the government may be whittled away before 2020, it now has a window of opportunity in coming months to push forward with its policy agenda in advance of major challenges looming on the horizon, including the EU referendum in 2016 or 2017.

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