Listen to this article
Years will pass before we arrive at some understanding of what has just happened in Britain. David Cameron will struggle to make sense of it on Friday morning, even as he savours electoral vindication and at least a few more years as prime minister.
To put the shock in context: Scotland has become a nationalist monopoly, the Liberal Democrats have lost around four-fifths of their MPs, members of the cabinet were felled — and yet none of these events was the most surprising of this general election. That status belongs to the Labour party’s horrendous showing in England, where Mr Cameron’s Conservatives exceeded their most sanguine expectations.
There will be an inquest by polling companies into their own errant work, which had foretold rough parity between the two main parties in popular votes and parliamentary seats. Instead, with counting still under way, the Tories are not far off an overall majority in the House of Commons and a strapping plurality of votes cast. For all the gains Labour made in England, the party may as well have spent the past five years on holiday.
Labour were plucky and romantic campaigners. The rhetoric of change poured out of Ed Miliband, the party’s cruelly traduced leader, who defied low expectations. But political gravity told in the end. Voters do not rate him, or Labour’s grip on economic matters. No party can survive such fundamental weaknesses, not even with a vaunted “ground game” and celebrity endorsements. Mr Miliband will go quickly, leaving his party to absorb the reality that this election was lost on September 25 2010, when it chose him ahead of his brother David as leader. It must avoid another misjudgment when its newest leadership race begins. The candidates are likely to include Andy Burnham from the left, Liz Kendall from the right and Chuka Umunna from who knows where.
The Tories have headaches of their own. Constructing a stable government is still an arithmetical challenge and their apparent disappearance from Scotland allows nationalists to describe Mr Cameron’s premiership as illegitimate north of the border. He might have to grant some radical devolution of power to Scotland; the UK certainly feels like a country ripe for federalism, and perhaps another referendum on Scottish secession within a matter of years.
Still, whatever the rumples, there is no getting around it: the Tories have performed sensationally. They increased their majority in many seats they were expected to lose. Having presided over cuts to public spending for five consecutive years, they have actually added MPs. A campaign viewed as bleak and sour by the media’s armchair strategists has turned out to be well-judged. Mr Cameron knew that Britons wanted security more than they desired change. His well-paid strategist, Lynton Crosby, can now write his own ticket.
Some form of Cameron-led government will take shape in the coming days, but Britain’s future is less certain than his. Scotland looks like another country this morning and a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU is probably on the way, too. The prime minister is entitled to a moment of self-satisfaction today. Once it passes, there are existential questions with which he must wrestle.
Get alerts on UK general election when a new story is published