The stunning nature of David Cameron’s triumph cannot mask the fact that his party will have a wafer-thin parliamentary majority.
The Conservatives will benefit from the fact that there is no strong Opposition party. The SNP dominate Scotland; Labour is diminished in England and Wales; the Liberal Democrats are wiped out and both the Ukip and the Greens shone briefly without impacting on the parliamentary seating plan.
However, the Tories face a divisive and distracting European Union membership referendum campaign. No issue has had such a negative effect on Conservative fortunes as Europe.
The pro-Cameron euphoria of present could easily evaporate, miring the new government’s ability to force through its agenda. Remember that John Major had a majority of 21 after the 1992 election before his government ran into the mire; David Cameron’s majority will be in single figures.
So how will local government fare under a potentially weak government for the next half decade? It is perhaps the case that local government’s push for devolution would have been boosted by a coalition – the likelihood is that a smaller coalition party already had a foothold in councils which it would have been keen to see cemented through entrenched powers.
However, the Conservative chancellor George Osborne is responsible for the single greatest devolution breakthrough of the past two decades: devolution to Greater Manchester. Under his influence, the government will see councils as a force to work with to drive economic growth, join services and – albeit under heavily controlled conditions – root out some of the inefficiencies of the centralised state.
On the other hand, there will be no let-up in austerity and councils of the north are likely to continue to feel hard done by with a funding allocation which – for instance through the new homes bonus – will favour the councils of the south-east. The Tories have talked big on NHS funding with little mention of the dire straits social care finds itself.
The integration of health and social care is one area which has to be tackled in the next five years. Although the Conservatives have made less reference to radical solutions than say, Andy Burnham, it is hardly inconceivable that they will re-examine social care’s position within local government, working alongside the NHS.
Whatever happens, there will be an onus on councils to innovate to prosper despite the prevailing hardships. And it is easier for councils benefiting from a favourable local economic backdrop to succeed. Inequality may grow within local government.
In short, expect a turbulent five years in which the government may struggle to drive through its plans and councils may struggle to break out of the shackles imposed by reduced income. It won’t be easy – for either ministers or councils.