Fallout from the election campaign complicates British politics

British Prime Minister David Cameron rode to reelection on fears; now he must try to unite the country

As Britain's progressive parties scramble to recover from an electoral trouncing, the victorious Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron finds himself facing a very different challenge.

Cameron rode to reelection Thursday on fears surrounding the nation's relationship with the European Union and Scottish separatism. Now he has the task of uniting the country — or at least keeping opponents sufficiently at bay so he can carry out an agenda that includes austerity measures and new immigration policies.

How Cameron navigates this political jungle will affect more than just Britain: The prime minister's pledge to hold a national referendum on EU membership by 2017 (emphasized often during the campaign to prevent right-wing defections) could open a brutal battle over Britain's place in Europe.

And as he begins what he says will be his final term, Cameron must lead a Parliament with 50 new seats from the separatist Scottish National Party. Cameron and the SNP lost no love during the campaign; to draw Labor voters to his party, Cameron often trotted out warnings that Labor would be forming alliances with the separatist SNP. Without some sort of reconciliation between the majority government and the nationalists, Britain could be headed to a second Scottish independence referendum and even the dissolution of the United Kingdom. (An EU withdrawal, incidentally, would also almost certainly trigger another independence referendum too.)

These events would create a nightmare in Washington. The U.S. has already seen an important transatlantic ally weakened in recent years. Divorces with Scotland and the EU community would undermine it even further.

The prime minister's new term, in other words, could be a lot more fraught than the old one.

"David Cameron has the opportunity now to avoid the painful saying that all political careers end in failure," said Tony Travers, director of the LSE London research center at the London School of Economics and Political Science. "But if it all goes wrong, it could be an accumulated disaster."

By winning 331 seats (Labor had 232), Cameron's party, for the first time in his tenure, commands a majority in the British Parliament. But now he may reap the fruits of the aggressive tactics that helped him secure it.

The Scottish front is perilous. Cameron hit the anti-SNP note hard during the campaign, betting that most ardent SNP voters weren't choosing the Conservatives anyway. But far from a marginal group, the party, under the dynamic new leader Nicola Sturgeon, has soared since Scotland's failed independence vote.

SNP's success Thursday, which included the election of 20-year-old Mhairi Black as the youngest member of Parliament in centuries, may turn out to have been as much a matter of effectively mobilizing those who already favored a breakaway as converting those who didn't (1.45 million people voted for the SNP, a number that's actually smaller than the 1.61 million who voted for the referendum).  Still, Scottish separatism is a bona fide phenomenon and a tightrope walk for Cameron.

The prime minister has promised greater control to Scots in areas such as energy and welfare. But too much autonomy risks a backlash among Conservatives in Parliament and the electorate. Not enough autonomy, and a second referendum could be in the wings.

On Friday, at least, Cameron was trying to offer an olive branch to his restless northern countrymen.

"We must ensure that we bring our country together," he told reporters. "We will govern as a party of one nation, one United Kingdom."

Cameron has a potentially even trickier dance with the EU.

Many experts believe he doesn't want to get to a referendum and is simply holding out for more favorable terms from the likes of Germany and France — not to mention courting the Euro-skeptic vote during the election. But he has pushed far enough, for long enough, that backing out of the referendum could be political suicide for the Conservatives, who are believed to have attracted many votes with the pledge.

A British exit from the union, after all, is strongly endorsed by the anti-immigration and anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party, which, though it won only one seat Thursday, garnered nearly 4 million votes, a huge increase that makes it one of the Conservatives' biggest electoral threats.

In his remarks Friday, Cameron mentioned the exit pledge again, indicating he was not going to let a campaign vow slide. "We will deliver that in-out referendum on our future in Europe," he said.

About the same time as Cameron was laying out his plans and meeting with Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace, a more somber theme was playing out a few miles away. The Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, his eyes red and puffy, addressed staffers of his socially progressive party.

"Devastating," "heartbreaking" and "crushing," he said of Thursday's election results, in which the party went from 57 seats to eight. People in the room at one point began clapping, but Clegg waved off the applause. He then resigned as party leader.

Labor Party leader Ed Miliband looked similarly worn out after his party failed to mount the challenge many pollsters thought it would.

"I take absolute and total responsibility for the result and our defeat at this election," he said to party workers. "I'm so sorry for all those colleagues that lost their seats." He then resigned too.

Miliband did not go into detail about what went wrong. But experts were pointing to a loss of the working-class vote, especially in Northern England and Scotland, and an inability to best the Conservatives on financial issues.

"You can read into this election a failure of the left in Britain to come up with a convincing response to the events of 2008 and the ensuing economic crisis," Travers said. "The world was radically affected by that crisis, and in the intervening time the United Kingdom has elected two Conservative governments."

The second of those governments is unlikely to change in one key international regard: cooperation with the United States. President Obama and Cameron have often stood together on foreign policy matters, as they did on economic sanctions against Russia last summer when much of Europe wavered.

Still, though relations have been strong — Cameron's press office tweeted Friday that Obama called and "said PM was a great partner and thrilled to keep working together" — Cameron's party has a slightly more isolationist bent than Labor.

That is certainly true when compared to Miliband, a decidedly America-gazing politician whose brother David, a former foreign secretary who now runs a nongovernmental organization in New York, nearly became the Labor leader several years ago until his brother defeated him. Some Labor supporters didn't waste time after Thursday's whipping — they started talking about a David Miliband-led return, hoping he'd mount yet another challenge to Cameron and the Conservatives.

Special correspondent Christina Boyle contributed to this report.

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