By any normal standards, the rise of David Cameron has been extraordinary. He wakes up this morning with a strong claim on the tenancy of 10 Downing Street, which would make him the youngest prime minister since 1812, a few months younger than Tony Blair was in 1997, and the youngest British party leader ever to achieve first place in a modern general election.
He can also claim that he is the leader who finally pulled the Conservatives out of the mire. Though the early signs last night were that the Conservatives had not done as well as they had hoped, Mr Cameron's spin-doctors wasted no time pointing out that this was still the best election the Conservatives have had since 1931, measured by the number of extra seats they have captured.
But waking up to this morning's news will be a very different experience for David Cameron from what it was for Tony Blair 13 years ago. Blair, half stunned by the scale of his victory, could walk in triumph along Downing Street on Friday morning and get straight to work forming his administration.
David Cameron's task today is to set out why he has a right to govern. He has to cut through constitutional niceties, dismiss any deal that the Labour Party may try to strike up with the Liberal Democrats, and convince the country that today he is the only person with a moral right to be the new Prime Minister.
And, just as importantly, he has to convince a disappointed Conservative Party that it has won a great victory.
The Conservatives have a way of dealing mercilessly with leaders who let them down. They sacked Iain Duncan Smith, the leader before last. They also sacked Edward Heath, and even Margaret Thatcher, who never lost a general election. They would undoubtedly have sacked John Major and Michael Howard too if they had not resigned first.
The party took a huge gamble in 2005 when it elected an untested 39-year-old former head of corporate affairs at Carlton Television as its new leader. Other leaders of the major political parties spent long years in Parliament working their way through the ranks, building alliances.
Even Tony Blair, whose rapid rise startled the political establishment, had been an MP for 11 years before he became Leader of the Opposition. David Cameron was first elected in 2001.
William Hague also became Tory leader very quickly when still young, but he was careful to hammer out the themes that appealed to the Tory faithful – crime, immigration, patriotism, and opposition to the euro. Although he led the party to defeat, he is a popular and reassuring figure for Tory activists.
But Cameron, as leader, has been a bit like a consultant brought in from outside to pull together a failing concern. The Conservatives knew that they needed someone who looked in touch with the age, and were prepared to support him for as long he looked like a winner.
But now that he has failed to secure the clear majority which seemed to be so obviously within reach a few months ago, he is vulnerable to those in his own party who would like to bring back their old-time religion.
The polls had been closed for barely an hour before Bill Cash, the veteran Tory MP for Stone, was on air saying that the main issues he had encountered talking to voters during the campaign were immigration and the EU – exactly the issues on which Michael Howard fought the last election, and which Cameron's people have carefully skirted around to avoid giving credence to Gordon Brown's taunt that they are "the same old Tories".
The precarious parliamentary arithmetic will improve party discipline in the short term, because no one on the Conservative side will want to do anything that might undermine David Cameron's ability to form an administration. But once formed, that government will be at the mercy not just of the other parties, but of any disgruntled Tory MPs who feel angry enough to vote against it.
In these unsettled times, Mr Cameron needs more than ever to exude decisiveness and energy. But without a majority in Parliament, he is simply unable to deliver some of what he has promised. He and George Osborne have promised to scrap inheritance tax on homes worth less than £1m, but they cannot do this on last night's results. They have promised the hunting community – a small but very well organised lobby within the Tory party – a free vote on whether to end the ban on hunting with dogs. They can give them the free vote, but there is no guarantee that they will win it.
But there are big things they can do. They have promised an emergency Budget within 50 days, which they can get through the Commons if they play their cards well. They can scrap Labour's proposed national insurance rise, which they have attacked as a "tax on jobs", because it is unlikely the Liberal Democrats will want to vote to keep it.
They have promised to cut government "waste", which they can do without needing legislation, assuming that they can find an adequate supply of "waste" to cut.
And they can hope that a display of swift action will impress the public and create a surge of support for the new government, so that they can hold another general election quickly with a realistic hope of turning today's inconclusive result into outright victory.Reuse content