Sunday was a Sunday for Tories in Britain. Clouds metaphorical and meteorological had broken in the capital, leaving 20-odd degrees of celsius in the air, 100 days of tax cuts on the horizon, and five years of Conservative Party rule secured on the calendar.
The shock of Thursday's electoral result, which had delivered an outright majority to the Conservative Party against every prognostication except perhaps that of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, had shifted to euphoria in Tory circles, and to despair on the other side. Commentary quickly circled round to talk of Britain's role in the world - this part was expected, even after an election in which foreign policy had played little part. Everyone knows now without a doubt that a referendum on the United Kingdom's EU membership is coming - it will be in Prime Minister David Cameron's Queen's Speech on May 27. As if there could be any doubt, voices on the party's right immediately began clamoring for the referendum.
While many contemplate worst-case scenarios, the commentary is basted in optimism in some of the more blinkered Tory corners - on broadcast and in print, some enunciated a conviction that David Cameron now is poised to deliver for Britain. He can face down European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and talk to German Chancellor Angela Merkel from a position of strength; he has a strong mandate from the British people. Indeed, David Cameron may be Europe's next great statesman.
Well...maybe. Or, maybe the adrenaline is flowing faster than reason can keep up. Cameron indeed has that chance. But it will not be easy.
As anyone knows who followed the election, the upcoming Parliament will face questions that cut to the core of British identity and national interest. The country's membership in the European Union will indeed be put to a vote by the end of 2017, and a breakup of the United Kingdom itself is still possible.
With no coalition partner to serve as a useful foil the way Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats did for five years, this all now lands firmly on Cameron's desk. Domestic concerns aside, the prime minister's legacy will be created as much in Brussels and in Scotland as anywhere else. And Cameron, who does not wish his country to leave the European Union, much less to see it fragment into its constituent parts, faces constraints that will become more obvious as his government moves forward - constraints placed on him by his electorate and his party, by his European counterparts, and by the effects of his own maladroit handling of the European question.
The political landscape in two years' time
The moment of jubilation is understandable. The Conservative Party pulled 331 seats from a volatile electorate in a vote that served as a referendum on Cameron's leadership. But to understand how quickly constituents could sour on Cameron II, one need only put that number into 650 - the total number of seats in the House of Commons - and look at the map on this page. With no coalition partner, Cameron rules the whole of his nation by a mere five-seat majority - a margin acquired with the votes of 37 percent of Britons - and he only truly represents the southern half of it.
Former Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond, who returns to Westminster as a Member of Parliament, let it be known just how obstreperous the Scottish opposition will be when he said in an interview that the Tory majority would "erode and change" within months. Salmond's relative clairvoyance aside, the Liberal Democrats have served as a brake on the more controversial elements of the Tory agenda for the last five years. With the opposition routed and the Conservatives freed up for a more vigorous pursuit of their priorities, it is not difficult to imagine Cameron's personal popularity taking a hit in the months and years to come. He has political capital now, undoubtedly. But how quickly, and how wisely, will he and his party spend it?
Why this matters to Europe
What has to worry the pro-European side is that, in a nation where the opposition has for now lost its footing, the answer to that question may be more relevant to Europe's future than it is to the Tories' near-term electoral prospects. David Cameron said that he would renegotiate Britain's relationship with the European Union, then sell that new settlement to his voters at the referendum. He will split his own party in doing so, facing pressure from his right, as well as from Labour's far left, and a UKIP that is not going away. The stay-in-Europe campaign was always going to get the backing of Britain's biggest political and business figures. The singularity of the general election vote, and the disarray of all other parties except a troublesome SNP, means that David Cameron can likely count on being the face of the pro-Europe campaign.
But first he has to get his deal from Europe. What Cameron wants has never been entirely clear, but Simon Hix outlined the basics:
Originally Cameron sent a list of demands that were about reforming the free movement of people, more powers for national parliaments, some limitations on the ECHR - which has nothing to do with the EU - a free trade agreement with the United States, protecting Britain's interests in the single market, a reform agenda for the single market, for a liberalizing agenda, and so forth.
The sticking point for Cameron is that a lot of his backbenchers want treaty reform for purely symbolic reasons. It's not clear why he wants treaty reform, maybe he's hoping there could be a sort of British opt-out from ever-closer union, some purely symbolic statement that says article such-and-such does not apply to the UK. It seems bizarre to the rest of Europe, but it's symbolic politics here in Britain.
It's impossible for there to be a new treaty by 2017. There may not even be treaty reform; most members don't want to open up the pandora's box of renegotiating the treaty.
Cameron has strained natural alliances in Europe, starting with his decision to take his party out of the staunchly pro-Europe EPP grouping in the European Parliament. And in Europe there are no guarantees anymore - and there is much ambiguity on Britain. Many Europeans see themselves as onlookers to a purely British drama - one that Britain must bring to an end itself. As Hix also pointed out, there are plenty in Europe who are happy to let Britain drift politely away. Any idea that a deal will come easy reflects Britain's growing parochialism: "We elected this man and send him to you with a mandate from the British people." Fine. Just ask Alexis Tsipras and Yanis Varoufakis how much that's worth.
This is where statesmanship comes in. Cameron and his European counterparts surely recognize the importance of this moment, for Britain and for the European project. The United Kingdom is famously aloof - in the European Union but not of it. Its relationship with the European institutions is unique and has been tested in the past. As Robert Kaplan has written, Europe sits astride an arc of fire, and as its many crises spread, one of its main problems is that "European leaders are, in the main, gray, insipid ciphers who stand for little except finessing rather than dealing with the next crisis, and the next."
Cameron can be different. He has a chance to be bold - to talk to Europe, stand up to his own party, and deliver what used to be a clear message: Europe is better when unified, and Britain is stronger as part of that arrangement. Deliver it with confidence, whatever the domestic political conditions are, because it happens to be true. A British "yes" to Europe - an affirmation from a nettlesome partner at a time of deep crisis - could lend some much-needed muscle to the weakening decades-long project to keep Europe united, peaceful, and prosperous. A "no" to Europe could catalyze a chain reaction toward the disintegration of the European Union, and of the United Kingdom as well. The predictions of doomsayers may yet prove too dire - it is too early to tell. What is sure is that David Cameron will not be a cipher - he will leave a legacy. The job ahead of him will not be easy. Who does David Cameron want to be?