Prime Minister David Cameron, having achieved a smashing and unexpected outright victory in Britain’s general election, heads into his second term facing severe — even existential — challenges to his nation’s identity and place in the world: how to keep the United Kingdom in theEuropean Union and Scotland in the United Kingdom.
In vanquishing the opposition Labour Party and winning an absolute majority in Parliament, Mr. Cameron gained the right to govern without a coalition partner, allowing him to claim a mandate on Friday to pursue his own agenda. But his majority is so narrow that it will force him to tread carefully with his own fractious legislators to pass legislation and address issues that could fundamentally redefine 21st-century Britain.
Those start with his pledge to hold a referendum by the end of 2017 on Britain’s continued membership in the European Union. He will also be under increased pressure from the other big winners of the election, the Scottish National Party, to revisit the question of independence for Scotland.
“A small majority can quickly turn into a bed of nails,” said Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator magazine. Backbenchers in Mr. Cameron’s own party, many of them farther to the right than he is on questions of immigration and Britain’s membership in the European Union, “will be his real opposition,” Mr. Nelson said.
More than in his first-term coalition with the centrist Liberal Democrats, which gave the government a large majority, Mr. Cameron will have to keep his own troops in line. His parliamentary managers, known as “whips” for good reason, will get plenty of exercise.
Complicating Mr. Cameron’s life is the fact that this election was also a huge victory for the Scottish National Party, which won 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats, giving them a strong voice in Westminster and making Scotland essentially a one-party state. The party wants an independent Scotland and is already considering putting a new referendum on independence into its party program for regional elections a year from now. Scotland voted against independence last September, but Thursday’s vote made clear that the dream remains very much alive among Scottish separatists.
On Friday, in front of 10 Downing Street, Mr. Cameron promised to “govern with respect,” to govern “as a party of one nation, one United Kingdom.”
But it will be easier said than done, especially after demonizing the Scottish National Party during the campaign. In essence, England and Scotland are today not one nation, but two, each dominated by a single party.
How far Mr. Cameron manages to satisfy Scotland and keep Britain together will be crucial to his legacy. One prominent party member, Boris Johnson, the mayor of London who won his own seat in Parliament, was already suggesting on Friday that it was time to adopt some form of federalism.
That task will require a delicacy of touch and generosity of spirit that the Conservatives, once labeled “the nasty party,” are not thought to possess in large amounts.
But the fate of Scotland will also be tied to Mr. Cameron’s other main challenge: Britain’s relationship with Europe. He has promised repeatedly that, if re-elected, he would hold a referendum on continued British membership in the European Union by the end of 2017, after efforts to negotiate a “better deal” with Brussels.
If he fails, and Britain votes to leave the European Union — not likely, but still a significant risk, and higher under a majority Conservative government — then pro-Europe Scotland would almost surely bring forward another referendum on independence, one that might very well pass.
Mr. Cameron’s task in Brussels will not be simple, because he wants alterations in the system of free movement of people and labor that could require a treaty change, a complicated and lengthy process. Even nontreaty changes would have to be approved unanimously by all 28 member states. Still, with this mandate — and the considerable showing in the popular vote of the anti-Europe U.K. Independence Party — European colleagues, including Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, will have little choice but to work with Mr. Cameron to keep Britain a member.
Nonetheless, Mr. Cameron faces considerable opposition to continued British membership, no matter what the terms, from within his own party. In the last Parliament, about a third of Conservative members were considered to be firmly anti-European, and that is unlikely to have changed very much.
And angry or disappointed party legislators are a great danger for small parliamentary majorities. In 1992, for example, Prime Minister John Major, also a Conservative, had a larger majority than Mr. Cameron does now, but saw it shrink steadily as the party fought over Europe and the Maastricht Treaty on further integration.
Times are different, argued Alan Duncan, a Conservative legislator, saying that his colleagues would be careful not to undermine the victory Mr. Cameron has brought them. Still, if Mr. Cameron, as expected after negotiations with Brussels, decides to support Britain staying in the European Union, it is very likely that a sizable number of Tory backbenchers will oppose him and campaign to leave Europe.
Some might even defect to UKIP, which took nearly 13 percent of the popular vote nationwide on Thursday, even though the party only won one seat and its leader, Nigel Farage, resigned.
Mujtaba Rahman of Eurasia Group, a consulting firm, put it bluntly in a note to clients in which he argued that the risk of Britain leaving the European Union “will jolt European politics for the next two years.”
“The U.K. will hold a referendum on its E.U. membership in 2017 following a renegotiation of membership terms,” he wrote. “The result will be uncertain, as Cameron grapples with the impossible demands of Euroskeptics in his party and the unwillingness of other E.U. capitals to offer significant concessions.”
Mr. Cameron must also deal with the temptation to govern as the head of “Little England,” distanced from Europe and from major strategic and military allies like the United States and France.
There will be other tensions. Mr. Cameron and his chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, have also laid out plans for continued spending cuts to bring down the big budget deficit and the national debt, promising a fully balanced budget by the end of the next Parliament in 2020. Without a formal coalition partner, the party can do roughly what it pleases, so long as it does not suffer any backbench revolt.
As laid out in the Conservative manifesto, the cuts would be deep outside certain protected areas like the National Health Service, and might be about 30 billion pounds, or about $49 billion. Mr. Osborne is driven by a Thatcherite belief in the value of a smaller state, to free up individual and corporate enterprise and encourage those able to work to do so, and such cuts could create political tensions in the country and even unrest.
Mr. Osborne is respected, but his economic theology is not shared by every Tory, which could also lead to defections and close votes.
Mr. Cameron has never been very popular with some of his backbenchers. They are sure to have been shocked and overjoyed at the victory he has just brought them, even as they were fearing that Labour would manage, with the Scots, to create a majority to throw the Tories out of power. Even the most optimistic Conservatives were talking about winning 300 seats, which all the pollsters thought was hallucinatory.
In the end, Mr. Cameron and his campaign brought them 331. That will buy him considerable credibility for a time. But not forever.