I was sorry to see that David Cameron felt he had to resign after being defeated in the EU referendum. Although he decided as Prime Minister to associate himself with the Remain campaign, the issue of our EU membership was big enough to transcend normal politics and he would have been justified had he wished to carry on and steer the country through the negotiations that will undoubtedly follow now that the British people have made their choice.
Both the Conservative Party and the country as a whole owe Mr Cameron a debt of gratitude. He took over the party after it suffered its third consecutive election defeat and forced it to modernise and adopt social values that were more in keeping with public opinion and the spirit of the times. Upon entering Downing Street he faced the crucial task of stabilising the economy in the wake of the global financial crisis and puting the country’s finances on a sound footing. A social reformer, he empowered his Cabinet colleagues to undertake radical changes to the delivery of public services. His offer to the Liberal Democrats of a genuine coalition in which the third party had ownership of policy decisions showed that he was willing to put the national interest above party interest, but also helped anchor the Conservatives firmly in the moderate centre ground of politics. Unfairly derided as a politician obsessed with image and spin, he took some big and bold decisions and on subjects like gay marriage or the referendum on Scottish independence, when he believed in an issue he staked his reputation on it and argued it with passion.
History will be kinder to David Cameron than today’s pundits, and he will be remembered for more than the outcome of the EU referendum. I wish him well in whatever he chooses to do next.
The opinion polls got it wrong. Although I went out on a limb and predicted back in October that the Conservatives would win an overall majority, commentators could not agree on the most likely outcome, with some suggesting that Labour would emerge as the largest party and others predicting that the coalition would continue in its present form.
The election has thrown up some unusual outcomes. The first is the headline result. The fact that David Cameron secured an overall majority when most people believed it wasn’t possible is testament to a well run election campaign and also reflects public confidence in his decision to focus on economic growth and stability over the next few years. During the final days of the campaign it became clear that voters were looking at the marked improvements we have seen in the economy over the last few years and were coming to the decision that we had to stick the course.
However, it wasn’t just the national campaign that helped the Conservatives gain an impressive victory. In many of the constituencies where I campaigned, such as Eastleigh, Kingston & Surbiton, Sutton & Cheam and Portsmouth South, hardworking candidates built up grassroots organisations and active campaigns by focusing on local issues, often gain support by going door to door and street to street to find out what people were really thinking. They were aided by an enthusiastic and activist volunteer base. This was my third General Election campaign and it was by far the most organised I had ever seen in terms of the Conservatives’ ability to direct activists and resources to target seats.
In contrast, Ed Miliband was never able to shake off perceptions that he would be a Prime Minister like Gordon Brown and spend too much, borrow too much and waste too much. Too many people failed to see him as a credible Prime Minister and felt he was concentrating on core Labour issues rather than bread and butter concerns. Labour also suffered a disastrous night in Scotland, losing all but one their seats to the SNP. Much will be written about this phenomenon in the next few days, but the SNP have obviously capitalised on a new engagement with politics which emerged in Scotland as a result of the referendum campaign.
The Liberal Democrats were punished heavily by voters. Although the coalition was in the national interest and the party took on a great responsibility in helping get the country through a difficult period, the public felt the Lib Dems had betrayed their principles and even national figures like Vince Cable and Simon Hughes weren’t spared from voters’ wrath.While some of these figures should have been able to count on a strong personal showing and could have run a positive campaign to secure re-election, the Lib Dem campaigns on the ground were often sneering and negative, with some terrible character assassinations and outright falsehoods being peddled about their opponents. I am glad that this style of doing politics backfired and was shown the contempt it deserves.
Another big story was the failure of UKIP to pick up more than one seat, despite winning almost 4 million votes. Nonetheless, the eurosceptic party picked up some impressive second place finishes, mainly in Labour seats in the north of England. It will be interesting to see whether they can capitalise on this progress or whether disappointment at a poor parliamentary showing will see disillusionment and division set in within the party.
The votes for the local election will be counted later this afternoon at the HG Wells Centre and my colleagues and I are hopeful that our solid record of delivering record investment in the town centre, in new housing and in top class public services while making efficiency savings and reducing waste will be rewarded with a bigger majority.