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article imageCameron faces nationalist surge and pressure on Europe

By Naomi O'Leary, Robin Millard (AFP)     May 8, 2015 in Politics

Prime Minister David Cameron was celebrating a surprise victory in Britain's general election Friday but thorny issues such as Europe and Scotland mean his second term could be even tougher than his first.

Cameron's Conservatives have won enough seats in the House of Commons to govern alone, ending their five-year coalition with the Liberal Democrats, but their majority is slim.

How the UK voted
How the UK voted
V. Breschi / G. Handyside, gil/mab, AFP

As a result Cameron risks being buffeted by rebellious lawmakers in his own party, particularly over a referendum on leaving Europe promised by 2017, as well as by the Scottish National Party (SNP), which has surged to become the third biggest party.

The 48-year-old prime minister's pledge to leave Downing Street before the next election in 2020 also leaves him vulnerable, experts say.

"Cameron returns now to 10 Downing Street for a maximum stay of three years," said Professor Patrick Dunleavy of the London School of Economics (LSE).

"He must step down by mid-2018 at the latest to allow his successor a decent run up to the polls.

"In the interim some bleak challenges will have to be faced by a government with a newly fragile majority."

- EU referendum battle ahead -

One big challenge is the in-out referendum on European Union membership which Cameron promised two years ago in the face of demands from eurosceptics in his centre-right party.

David Cameron has pledged to let Britons vote in 2017 on membership of the European bloc 
David Cameron has pledged to let Britons vote in 2017 on membership of the European bloc 
Thierry Charlier, AFP/File

Christopher Howarth, senior policy analyst at think-tank Open Europe, said Cameron faced three tests -- renegotiating Britain's relationship with Europe, persuading his lawmakers to support the measures and selling them to the public.

He voiced optimism Cameron could persuade European partners who want to keep Britain in the EU of the need for reform but said the negotiation must be approached carefully.

"If he asks for too much, he might not get what he wants and look like a failure," Howarth said. "If he asks for too little, it may be written off by some."

While most Conservative lawmakers were likely to be persuaded to join Cameron in campaigning to stay in Europe, a hardcore of "awkward squad" eurosceptics would likely remain opposed.

"There will be MPs who aren't satisfied whatever the prime minister comes back with," Howarth said.

Opinion polls currently suggest that Britons will vote to stay part of Europe and Cameron will campaign to stay in, provided he can secure reforms such as tightening rules on immigration and state benefits.

But much could change during the referendum campaign in a country whose eurosceptic strain was highlighted at Thursday's election when the anti-EU UK Independence Party won some 12 percent of the vote.

- SNP another headache -

The spectacular rise of the pro-independence SNP is also likely to be a thistle in Cameron's side.

Nicola Sturgeon's party, which harbours a deep loathing of the Conservatives, won 56 out of 59 Scottish seats in the Commons, a ninefold increase on its previous tally of six.

SNP lawmakers including heavyweight former party leader Alex Salmond could cause trouble for Cameron at Westminster, particularly if the Conservatives' small majority shrinks further.

The SNP led by Nicola Stureon won 56 of 59 parliamentary seats in Scotland in Britain's general...
The SNP led by Nicola Stureon won 56 of 59 parliamentary seats in Scotland in Britain's general election, up from just six at the last vote in 2010
Andy Buchanan, AFP

"When you get midway through a parliament, you get by-elections, you have got the Tory awkward squad (and) Europe which can divide the Conservatives," said Malcolm Harvey of Aberdeen University.

"If the Conservative party starts to fracture then you could see the SNP try and take advantage of that."

Harvey expected that the SNP would not use their position to push for another quick referendum on Scottish independence after the move was rejected in a vote last year, but would instead push for more powers for the devolved Scottish Parliament.

"This is a chance for them just to chip away at that so that when it comes eventually, the step to independence would be that bit smaller," Harvey said.

But he added that the SNP could "start to talk up an independence referendum again" if the rest of Britain voted to leave the EU against the will of broadly pro-European Scots.

If his majority is chipped away, Cameron could work with parties such as Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionists to keep his government in power.

John Major, the last Conservative premier before Cameron, used a similar tactic to cling to power after losing his majority in 1996, before being ousted in the 1997 election.

Although Cameron's previous coalition with the Liberal Democrats was dogged by squabbles, he may soon yearn for the relative stability it offered.

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