“To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle,” wrote George Orwell. Engrossed in the Lib Dem massacre and the SNP triumph, few have noticed one obvious truth: the Tories are the big winners from today.
As I write, the Conservatives have made a net gain of 37 seats and their share of the vote has held up – a truly remarkable result. The Tories had been predicted to lose 500-1,000 seats. In an interview outside Conservative Central Office, David Cameron has just promised that there will be “no celebrating, no congratulations” after the AV result tonight.
Yet the Tories have much to celebrate today. Despite the unpopularity of the (Tory-dominated) government’s austerity measures and its NHS reforms, they have not suffered at the polls. Nay, they have gained. As the left always warned, the Lib Dems have acted as their human shields.
Until the final weeks of the referendum campaign, a No vote was never inevitable. Most polls before the campaign proper showed the two sides neck and neck. The turning point came when David Cameron, who initially planned to lie low during the referendum period, put himself at the centre of the No campaign. As Nick Clegg remarked, the Tory leader “threw the kitchen sink” at the referendum after realising the considerable damage that a Yes vote would do to his leadership.
Had the Yes campaign won, Cameron would have been branded a serial loser, the man who failed to win a majority against as unpopular a prime minister as Gordon Brown, who was then forced to offer a referendum on AV to the Lib Dems and who sacrificed first-past-the-post as a result. But today Cameron will enjoy one of his best days since becoming Prime Minister.
There is now a far greater chance of a Tory majority in 2015. The prospect of an emboldened Conservative Party fighting the next election under first-past-the-post, having redrawn the constituency boundaries in its favour, is not a happy one for Labour. Those who assume that Labour will return to power on a wave of anti-cuts discontent could not be more wrong. For Ed Miliband, the really hard work starts now.