Britain's Cameron won big by selling stability over fear

Before you go, we thought you'd like these...
Before you go close icon
GE2015: Triumphant David Cameron Wins Commons Majority

Prime Minister David Cameron sealed a surprise election win by persuading Britons to choose the security of modestly rising living standards over an implausible pretender many feared could become the puppet of Scottish nationalists.

Blending the promise of "the good life" fueled by a strong economic recovery with fear of resurgent Scottish separatists calling the shots in a country they want to break up, Cameron steamrolled the opposition Labour Party and won his party's first outright majority in 23 years.

16 PHOTOS
David Cameron (UPDATED 5/8)
See Gallery
Britain's Cameron won big by selling stability over fear
Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron returns to 10 Downing Street in London after attending a VE Day service at the Cenotaph, Friday, May 8, 2015. Cameron's Conservative Party swept to power Friday in Britain's Parliamentary elections winning an unexpected majority. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife Samantha smile from the steps of 10 Downing Street in London Friday, May 8, 2015, after meeting with Britain's Queen Elizabeth II in a traditional formality, where he informed her that he has enough support to form a government. Cameron's Conservative Party swept to power Friday in Britain's Parliamentary General Elections, winning an unexpected majority. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 08: (L-R) Labour leader Ed Miliband, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg and Prime Minister David Cameron attend a tribute at the Cenotaph to begin three days of national commemorations to mark the 70th anniversary of VE Day May 8, 2015 in London, United Kingdom. Both Miliband and Clegg said they will resign their posts as party leaders after they were soundly beaten by Cameron and his Conservative Party in yesterday's general election. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Britain's Prime Minister and Leader of the Conservative Party David Cameron and his wife Samantha are applauded by staff upon entering 10 Downing Street in London on May 8, 2015, after visiting Queen Elizabeth II, a day after the British general election. British Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative party on Friday won a majority in the House of Commons in the general election, results showed. AFP PHOTO / POOL / STEFAN ROUSSEAU (Photo credit should read STEFAN ROUSSEAU/AFP/Getty Images)
British Prime Minister David Cameron speaks during a United Nations Security Council meeting, Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2014, at at U.N. headquarters. Members of the Security Council were expected to adopt a resolution that would require all countries to prevent the recruitment and transport of would-be foreign fighters preparing to join terrorist groups such as the Islamic State group. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
United Kingdom's Prime Minister David Cameron addresses the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2014, at U.N. headquarters. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
British Prime Minister David Cameron attends a meeting of the United Nations Security Council regarding the threat of foreign terrorist fighters during the 69th session of the U.N. General Assembly at U.N. headquarters, Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2014. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)
British Prime Minister David Cameron addresses the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2014, at the United Nations headquarters. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
British Prime Minister David Cameron meets with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the UN during the 69th Session of the UN General Assembly, Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2014. (AP Photo/Timothy A. Clary, Pool)
President Barack Obama speaks at the UN Security Council summit on foreign terrorist, Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2014, at UN headquarters. Front row, from left are, British Prime Minister David Cameron, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the president. Behind are Secretary of State John Kerry and US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
British Prime Minister David Cameron greets President Paul Kagame of Rwanda before a meeting of the United Nations Security Council regarding the threat of foreign terrorist fighters during the 69th session of the U.N. General Assembly at U.N. headquarters, Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2014. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)
British Prime Minister David Cameron speaks during a high-level meeting at the Ford Foundation on post-2015 anti-poverty goals, Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2014, in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, Pool)
British Prime Minister David Cameron speaks during the United Nation Climate Summit at U.N. headquarters, Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
British Prime Minister David Cameron leaves after giving a statement to the media about Scotland's referendum results, outside his official residence at 10 Downing Street in central London, Friday, Sept. 19, 2014. Scottish voters have rejected independence, deciding to remain part of the United Kingdom after a historic referendum that shook the country to its core. The decision prevented a rupture of a 307-year union with England, bringing a huge sigh of relief to the British political establishment. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 24: British Prime Minister David Cameron (L) meets with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the Unityed Nations during the 69th Session of the UN General Assembly September 24, 2014 in New York City. World leaders, activists and protesters have converged on New York City for the annual UN event that brings together the nations for a week of meetings and conferences. This year's General Assembly has highlighted the problem of global warming and how countries need to strive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. (Photo by Timothy A. Clary-Pool/Getty Images)
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE
SHOW CAPTION +
HIDE CAPTION


"We've had a positive response to a positive campaign about safeguarding our economy," said Cameron, as if he had always expected to win so emphatically.

The truth was different.

Before it became clear he had won, some in his center-right Conservative Party feared he had run a dull campaign that failed to shift apparently tied opinion polls.

Others in the party, famous for ruthlessly junking predecessors such as triple election-winner Margaret Thatcher, thought his days were numbered even if he won because he was unlikely to win big.

He forgot the name of his football team at one point, was accused of dodging TV debates, and had sometimes struggled to hold his party together.

Seeking to lift his game, a gesticulating and shirt-sleeved Cameron vehemently described himself as "pumped up" at one campaign appearance widely derided by critics. But that had to be set against Labour leader Ed Miliband's much-ridiculed efforts to convince voters that "Hell yes, I'm tough enough".

Cameron, guided by his Australian campaign adviser Lynton Crosby, spent six weeks hammering home just two messages: Vote Conservative to secure economic recovery, and stop Labour coming to power backed by Scottish nationalists.

Crosby's strategy was that "you can't fatten a pig on market day". That meant voters were bombarded with a message in the hope that relentless repetition would help it "take".

"The Lynton Crosby strategy came through in the end," one Conservative activist in Cameron's Oxfordshire constituency, who declined to be named, told Reuters.

As he addressed supporters on Friday, Cameron savored proving his doubters wrong.

"The pundits got it wrong, the pollsters got it wrong, the commentators got it wrong," he said. "This is the sweetest victory of them all."

SCOTTISH WRECKERS

Conservative staffers said they were surprised by the scale of their victory.

Many put it down to English horror at the prospect of Scottish nationalists wielding influence over swathes of the United Kingdom which they still want to leave despite losing an independence referendum last year.

"It's got to be the Scottish National Party angle," one jubilant Conservative activist who declined to be named said. "More than any line in any election, that one has really cut through to people we meet on the doorstep."

The SNP didn't run on an independence ticket this time, drawing in voters who want to stay in the United Kingdom but want a stronger Scottish voice in British politics.

It was a strategy that won them a landslide, securing 56 of Scotland's 59 parliamentary seats.

It repeatedly offered to help Labour come to power "to lock out Cameron". Miliband ruled out deals with the SNP, but failed to dispel voters' doubts he would relent and make a pact with the nationalists.

For many in England that was a reason not to vote Labour.

Though it didn't initially appear to have the impact he had hoped for, Cameron's economic record gave him a lead over Miliband on economic competence.

The fact that real wage growth only picked up in the months before the election caused jitters in the Cameron camp. But he was able to deliver record low inflation, high employment and cheap mortgages.

And crucially, he told Britons they would feel the benefits of the recovery if they gave him another five years.

"This somehow actually had more traction (than people thought)," said Grants Shapps, Conservative party chairman.

Cameron's pledges to cut welfare spending sharply angered Labour supporters. But they went down well with many voters who resented claimants regularly portrayed as feckless parasites.

'RED ED'

But perhaps Cameron's best asset was Miliband, nicknamed "Red Ed" by his detractors.

He began the campaign cast by right-leaning newspapers as a socially awkward geek with neither gravitas nor policies. His party had left Britain with its biggest peacetime deficit when it left office in 2010.

Miliband tried to repair Labour's battered reputation for fiscal responsibility but refused to say it had borrowed too much, angering some voters. He forgot key passages of a speech on the economy and immigration at Labour's last conference before the election.

And in a move that dismayed some supporters, he commissioned a stone tablet engraved with his election promises which critics ironically compared to Moses' Ten Commandments.

During the campaign, Miliband was perceived to have outperformed low expectations and to have improved his ratings.

But it wasn't enough.

"His ratings improved but they are still much below David Cameron in terms of competence," said Ben Page, chief executive of pollster Ipsos MORI.

Perhaps most importantly, Miliband's big gamble didn't come off. One of his predecessors, Tony Blair, had led Labour to three election victories by anchoring the party in the center ground. But Miliband shifted to the left, promising to raise taxes and spending and to intervene in markets to right what he perceived as unfair imbalances.

"We failed to offer a compelling vision of the future," said Tristram Hunt, Labour's education spokesman.

Some blamed David Axelrod, the former Obama adviser, who helped coordinate Labour's campaign.

"To a certain extent he didn't succeed in creating a campaign that got to everybody across the country and that's what you're going to need to do if you're going to get into government again," said Jacqui Smith, a former Labour minister.

COALITION PARTNER WOES

Cameron was also boosted by a collapse in support for his coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats.

Opinion polls had suggested the centrist party, with whom Cameron had governed since 2010, had paid a heavy price for going into government with him.

Many supporters felt it had betrayed its principles by going into coalition with Cameron and could not forgive it for what they saw as a U-turn on student tuition fees.

It was expected to do badly, but not even its fiercest critics predicted it would win just eight seats, down from 57 in 2010.

The Conservatives won 27 seats from the Liberal Democrats, claiming the scalps of two of their senior cabinet ministers, Business Secretary Vince Cable and Energy Secretary Ed Davey.

Equally, a potential threat to Cameron from the anti-EU UK Independence Party never really materialized.

It had threatened to split the Conservative vote and it did win millions of votes, but Britain's first-past-the-post electoral system meant it won only one seat in the end.

But it was Labour's collapse in Scotland, a traditional stronghold, that lost Miliband the most seats. In 2010, Labour won 41 seats there. This time it won just one.

(Additional reporting by Kylie MacLellan and William James; Editing by Guy Faulconbridgeand Janet Lawrence)

Read Full Story

Sign up for Breaking News by AOL to get the latest breaking news alerts and updates delivered straight to your inbox.

Subscribe to our other newsletters

Emails may offer personalized content or ads. Learn more. You may unsubscribe any time.

From Our Partners