LONDON — The losers of Britain’s election did far worse than simply falling short. Three opposition parties lost their leaders and now face profound questions about their future directions.
On Friday, Labor leader Ed Miliband conceded defeat to rival David Cameron, who will continue to serve as British prime minister after his Conservative Party won an overwhelming — and unexpected — victory.
Miliband then stepped down from his leadership post. Within the previous hour, the heads of the Liberal Democrats and the anti-immigration U.K. Independence Party had also departed. Given the scale of the carnage, opposition to the Conservative agenda was effectively neutered, at least for now.
“The Westminster model has an extraordinary element of sudden death and brutality. There’s not a gentle handover,” said Tony Travers, a politics expert at the London School of Economics.
Miliband urged his supporters to “continue the fight” without him. “I am truly sorry I did not succeed, but I have done my best for nearly five years,” he said.
It had been a remarkable 24 hours for Miliband, who on Thursday was thought to have a chance at moving in to 10 Downing Street. But his party suffered heavy defeats in its historical heartland of Scotland, where it was nearly sidelined by the pro-statehood Scottish National Party.
Several prominent Labor politicians also were steamrolled, including the party’s finance chief, Ed Balls — arguably the most significant defeat for Labor — and Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary, who was beaten by a 20-year-old college student.
Jim Murphy, the leader of the Scottish Labor Party, also lost his seat.
The rout was worse for the Liberal Democrats, who had previously forged a coalition alliance with Cameron’s Conservatives. That gave the party a foothold in power, but the move was also seen by many supporters as a betrayal of its social justice principles.
The Liberal Democrats’ leader, Nick Clegg, announced his resignation Friday after what he described as the most “crushing” defeat in his party’s history. The party won eight seats; in the previous election, in 2010, it took 57.
In a passionate defense of liberalism, a teary-eyed Clegg said it was a “very dark hour” for his party, but he added that “we cannot and will not allow decent liberal values to be extinguished.”
The Liberal Democrats’ many casualties include Vince Cable, the party’s business secretary, and Danny Alexander, the chief secretary to the treasury. Simon Hughes and Charles Kennedy, two veteran members of the party, also lost their seats.
Nigel Farage, the charismatic leader of the U.K. Independence Party, also threw in the towel after failing to secure a spot in Parliament.
Farage is one of Britain’s best-known politicians, famous for his beer drinking and verbal assaults on foreigners. UKIP’s image is so tied to Farage’s that his loss could spark an identity crisis for the party.
Few expected the Conservatives to do as well as they did — or for so many political titans from other parties to fall. Now, the losers will likely turn inward, at least for the foreseeable future.
The only other party cheering Friday was in the north, where the Scottish National Party pulled off a nearly clean sweep of the region’s 59 seats to become the third-largest party at Westminster.
The party suffered a major blow last year after the failure of a referendum on Scotland’s independence from the United Kingdom.
Scottish nationalist leaders have not ruled out another referendum in the next several years, despite asserting at the time of last year’s vote that it was the last chance for independence in a generation.
Andrew Russell, head of the politics department at the University of Manchester, predicted a period of serious soul-searching for the losing parties as they embark on leadership contests and plot a new way forward.
Labor will examine why it rejected the strategy that won it three elections in a row under Tony Blair, Russell said, while the Liberal Democrats will question the steep price they paid for entering into a coalition with the Conservatives.
Russell also suggested that the opposition could remain rudderless for years as the routed parties work to get their bearings.
“It might not be too hyperbolic to say that Conservatives won this election, but they could win the one after, as well,” he said.