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Literally could not be better.” The text message came from an important Conservative, not on Thursday night but five years ago. On September 25 2010, the Labour party elected Ed Miliband as its leader, and so forfeited the 2015 general election. The Tories knew it and so did voters, even if they spent the rest of the parliament saying otherwise to the other mortified losers of this contest: the pollsters.
Elections are decided by fundamentals that take shape years in advance. The five-week flurry of campaigning at the end might actually be the least significant phase of a parliament. Labour went into this election with a leader who is decent, clever and possessed of superhuman resilience. But he is also a notch or two shy of the standard required of a prime minister. Up against him was David Cameron. People wonder what he stands for; nobody wonders whether he is up to the job.
This disadvantage was compounded by Labour’s almost petulantly unapologetic attitude to its profligacy in office during the past decade. A weak leader touting a shaky economic record: this is not something a party can survive with any amount of grassroots elbow-grease and any number of celebrity endorsements. When Russell Brand spoke, Nuneaton did not listen.
Years will pass before we understand what has just happened in Britain. Scotland, where the nationalists have a political monopoly, looks like another country now. Liberalism has experienced its second strange death, a century after the first one. Some of the mightiest politicians in the land — Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, among them — are jobless. Yet none of this is quite as shocking as Labour’s failure — and the Conservatives’ success — in England. Seats Mr Miliband was expected to win without exerting himself returned Tory MPs with increased majorities. For all the gains he made, he may as well have spent the past five years in bed.
If Mr Cameron crows about his campaign, we cannot moan. It was trashed as a sour and negative flop by the media’s armchair strategists, who implored him to jump up and down a bit more and show “passion”. He briefly cowed to this expert advice when the polls remained static but, for the most part, the Tories kept bludgeoning away at the core themes of leadership and economic management.
Intensive research honed over two years by Lynton Crosby, their campaign director, suggested that these were the twin paths to victory. Then, in March, he stumbled on a third. Focus groups reacted biliously to the prospect of a minority Labour government propped up by the Scottish National party. MPs reported the same sentiment as they did their constituency rounds. The Tories had a wedge issue at last, which they exploited pitilessly — and in the minds of principled unionists, irresponsibly.
Mr Crosby, a gun for hire across the world, can now name his own terms. But the best campaigners understand that campaigns do not change very much: they merely uncover what already lurks inchoately in the mind and breast of the electorate. On that score, Labour lost the election long ago. The consolation is that it can now choose a new leader from a promising field. Andy Burnham, from the left, will offer Milibandism without Miliband. The more market-friendly flank of the party might assemble behind Liz Kendall or Chuka Umunna, the man Tories fear most. Whoever they choose, there has to be the all-out argument that was dodged in 2010, when the party entered a stupor of mutual reassurance and wishful thinking.
The prime minister, too, has decisions to make. Outside 10 Downing Street on Friday morning, he spoke of “respect” for the nations of the UK. This is elegant code for a huge devolution of power to Scotland, and concomitant moves to English self-rule. The technical and constitutional knottiness of this project will be excruciating. At the same time, he will try to revise Britain’s terms of membership of the EU and put the final bargain to a referendum in the middle of this parliament. Chivvying him all the way will be his rightwing critics on the Tory benches, who find themselves suddenly empowered by the narrowness of his parliamentary majority. To achieve victory, instead of another coalition, might be the best and worst thing he has ever done.
In the meantime, Mr Cameron has electoral success to savour, and the right has something more precious and lasting: ideological encouragement. Governments that cut public spending upset voters, which is why they tend not to do it. So when a Tory party led by men of infuriating privilege hacks away at the state for five years and ends up with even more seats than it had to begin with, history will take note. This election is a precedent to be invoked by fiscal hawks and free-marketeers for decades to come. They will overclaim and over-reach, as ideologues tend to, but they are nearer the mark than Mr Miliband, who was sure his country had tilted left after the crash.
Austerity and popularity no longer seem so hard to reconcile, at least in liberal Britain. Politics is the art of the possible, but it is also the art of redefining what is possible. Mr Cameron has just done that.