Cameron's Hard Work Starts Now

See, they do like me.

Photographer: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Britain's voters have spoken, returning Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron to Downing Street by a margin so large it surprised even the winners. By all means, Cameron should take the weekend to celebrate.

But make no mistake: His job just got much harder. The politics of this campaign, combined with the vagaries of the U.K.'s electoral system, have complicated his efforts to address the two delicate political realities that threaten the very future of his country. The first concerns the U.K.'s place in the European Union. The second concerns Scotland's place in the U.K.

QuickTake Will Britain Leave the EU?

Yes, the Conservative Party now holds a narrow majority. But Cameron's pro-EU former coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, have been all but destroyed, giving anti-EU Conservative back-benchers a louder voice. At the same time, Scotland will be represented almost entirely by the pro-independence Scottish National Party, which is dedicated to breaking up Britain. That means, as former Labour First Minister of Scotland Henry McLeish told Bloomberg TV this morning, "If you insult the SNP, you insult Scotland."

If this situation is handled badly, the U.K. could conceivably end up with something it didn't vote for on Thursday at all: A future out of the EU -- deserted by the foreign direct investment that has traditionally flowed into the U.K. economy as a stable and flexible base from which to trade within Europe -- and without Scotland.

Indeed, Scotland was the decisive story of this election. It has emerged as a separate country on the electoral map. The SNP's near clean sweep north of the border deprived Labour of 40 members of Parliament at a stroke, while Cameron's campaign strategy of stoking English fears of a minority Labour government dependent for its survival on Scottish nationalists produced crucial votes against Labour south of the border, too.

UK electoral map by party and constituency.
Source: Bloomberg

In the short term, Cameron's win is the best outcome for business and the U.K. economy, as suggested by this morning's sharp rally in the value of the pound. Voters chose the safer pair of hands to guide Britain's economy over what are certain to be several more difficult years. But the next few years will require some deft and visionary handling by Cameron.

He is now obliged to carry through with his pledge to hold a referendum on whether the country should leave the EU by the end of 2017. If the U.K. is to stay, he will have to lower expectations of how much EU reform he can deliver before the vote and defy much of his own party. At the same time, Cameron will need to rejuvenate the U.K.'s antiquated electoral system and constitution in such a way that Scots can be accommodated within it.

Cameron's complicated new reality is partly a consequence of "first-past-the-post" elections that count only the votes of the winners. It disproportionately rewards parties whose votes are regionally concentrated -- such as the SNP -- and penalizes those whose supporters are more evenly distributed across the country, such as the U.K. Independence Party. UKIP won more than twice as many votes as the SNP but 1/56th the number of seats. Even within Scotland, the SNP won, not 95 percent of the vote as their representation at Westminster would suggest, but about half.

This system was tolerated when it supported a two-party system, but that no longer exists. Now that Britain's parliamentary order relies on multiple parties, and the U.K. is becoming more a union of nations than a centralized state, this way of electing the legislature has become undemocratic and unsustainable for a U.K. that includes Scotland. Cameron's majority government should make a priority of electoral reform -- to introduce an element of proportional representation. It will also need to devolve further powers to Scotland and begin a much broader constitutional change.

The prime minister has won, and won bigger, perhaps, than even he dared hope. But he has his work cut out to deliver the political stability and continued economic recovery that he promised.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.