Lord Derby described Benjamin Disraeli's management of the 1867 Reform Bill as "a leap in the dark". That is how many Tories regard David Cameron's latest manoeuvres. A lot of Tories are afraid of the dark.
There are two possible interpretations of the English results (for Scotland, see below). The first is that David Cameron missed an historic opportunity. England is a broadly conservative country, just waiting to respond to a traditional Tory appeal. But instead of giving the voters hot gospel on Europe and immigration, Mr Cameron burbled on about the Big Society and greenery. As a result, he sounded green in the old-fashioned sense of the word, which is why he polled below his natural support.
The second is that people are nervous. Worried about their jobs, anxious about their future, they were in the market for a bit of safety first. David Cameron's political body language conveys excitement, not safety – and there is also the George Osborne problem. Mr Osborne is very clever. He has acute political judgement. It is easy to understand why Mr Cameron has stood by him. But it was a mistake. If David Cameron had been running for President in the US, he would never have been allowed to choose George Osborne as his running mate. They are too alike; both from the Toffolinas.
The two theories overlap. Many of those who feel economically insecure also feel threatened by immigration and Europe. But it would be unwise for disappointed Tories to assume that there is a silent Tory majority out there for the taking. Certainly, there is the irritation of Ukip. But many Ukip supporters are swivel-eyed fanatics. Even if it were possible to appease them, that would be an undignified process resulting in a loss of political authority which would cost many more votes than Ukip could deliver – and delivering Ukip supporters would be like herding cats.
More generally, the lure of the silent majority has enticed right-wingers since the days of Richard Nixon, who invented the phrase. But in England, where culture wars are not a factor, that supposed majority is better at remaining silent than at exerting itself in a majoritarian manner. If there was a right-wing vote waiting to be exploited by populist Toryism, Margaret Thatcher would presumably have done so. But in England, David Cameron's share of the vote was not far behind hers.
It would be foolish to rush to conclusions about an election in which the results were so varied, but I would make four tentative assumptions. First, that most of the sane bigots did vote Tory. Second, that if David Cameron had not used the language of hope and renewal, he would not have done as well as he did. He had to distance himself from the old politics. Third, that George Osborne was an electoral liability. If William Hague or Ken Clarke had been shadow Chancellor, David Cameron would have been kissing hands on Friday. Fourth, that the great strategic weakness of the Tory campaign was the failure to harmonise change and stability. There was a failure to seal the deal with enough lower-middle class and upper working-class voters. Once he has had enough sleep, Mr Cameron should re-evaluate his advisers. Steve Hilton is a delightful and clever fellow. Does he understand England?
Traditionally, the Tory party is unforgiving. Tories believe that they are the true British National Party, and as such, the natural party of government. So they expect their leaders to win. As David Cameron had forced his party in all sorts of uncomfortable directions, there was an especial pressure on him. Given that, the speed with which he adjusted to an unwelcome outcome is greatly to his credit.
On Friday, Mr Cameron could have done nothing. He could have said that as he was the winner, the others should stand aside. But if he had done so, there would have been a problem. They would probably have rejected his advice, and formed a coalition. It would not have been trouble-free. Even if the Nationalist parties had decided to abstain in the short run, they would have been waiting for an opportunity to trip up the Government.
There would have been a further hazard for the Liberals. They would not have wanted to protect Gordon Brown. That would not have been helpful when the West Country next went to the polls. Peter Mandelson has implied that the Brown question is negotiable. Lord Mandelson has also said that anyone who expected Gordon Brown to resign after a mere election defeat does not know Gordon Brown. When Mandy made that remark, he thought that he was making a joke. Mr Brown's post-election behaviour suggests that the Mandelson comment was an underestimate.
So it would appear that the Liberals are in a weak position, while Gordon Brown has lost. This would seem to suggest that the Tories should sit on their hands. Let the Lib/Labs form a weak government. Gloat in private while the markets panic, share prices collapse and the IMF looms. Wait for the Government to fail and fall. Then return to the country, saying: "You were attracted by PR. Now you've had PR. Did you enjoy it?"
Tempting. Had I been leading the Tory party, that is what I would have done. But there is a difficulty. It would have condemned the country to the rack of market chaos, at a moment when the economic recovery – if there is one – is perilously poised. If the Tory party is the National Party, it must also be the patriotic party. So it ought to deplore any political calculation based on a profit from economic chaos. David Cameron has taken a hell of a risk. He has imperilled his own leadership. But he has acted in the national interest. Even if they disagree, all Tories should respect his motives.
The national interest brings us to Scotland. Thursday may well have been one of the blackest days in British history. When Scottish devolution was introduced, many of its supporters insisted that it would stabilise the Union. The Scots would be more or less satisfied; the Unionist parties would always have a blocking majority. Others, including me, argued that devolution would create a separate Scottish political identity, with dangerous consequences.
Although there may have been no way of averting devolution, the doubters were right. By Friday, it was clear that England and Scotland were voting on different planets. In England, the Tories had a majority of 62. In Scotland, they have one seat. Admittedly, there was no Nat breakthrough. This emphatically does not mean that the Union is safe. It is now under mortal threat, from the English.
We know what will happen over the next few months. Not only will the Scots oppose every cut. They will demand higher subsidies and more powers. They will also cheer on England's opponents in the football World Cup. Should England win, Scotland would proclaim a day of national mourning.
All this will communicate itself to the English, who will be unimpressed. At some moment, Alex Salmond will use his Holyrood powers to hold a referendum on independence. He is unlikely to win. However often they sing "Scots Wha Hae", the North Britons will not vote to separate themselves from England's cheque-book. But what if the English demand their say, their referendum? Although not many English yet realise it, their independence movement started last Thursday.