Welcome to the era of no overall control

The leaders’ debates energised what were, in truth, disappointing campaigns for all three main parti

It's all over: the festival of pledges, pratfalls, fumbles and fudges that constitutes a modern British election campaign. And the result is . . . great confusion. Parliament's hung, everyone's lost and the only likely bet is another election not too far away. We are now in possession of the Snark of British politics - a first-past-the-post election with a muddy, proportional representation-type result.

Asked on the BBC at 5am on Friday 7 May who was going to be running the country, the Children's Secretary, Ed Balls, replied that he didn't know for sure, as he had been out of mobile contact for an hour. And that's how it felt as the graphics registered unsatisfactory gains for the Tories, a savage deflation of the Lib Dem soufflé and Labour hanging on in there, despite losing the mandate of a majority.

There were cameos to savour along the way: the former home secretary Jacqui Smith's face, staring at the defeat she knew was coming but still flinching at the blow when it landed; and Gisela Stuart, holding off the Tory advance in Edgbaston. This was a reminder that sometimes - just sometimes - pleasant character and consistent views can triumph over the party machines.

And there was the news that many Friends of Cameron hadn't made it - so, no Annunziata Rees-Mogg and no Notting Hill queen Joanne Cash in the next parliament. Meanwhile, many Tories were just as dismayed to see Zac Goldsmith crowned in Richmond as some in New Labour were to see Balls survive his boundary change.

At the end of it all, we were left watching Gordon Brown re-entering Downing Street and a lot of aerial shots of cars hurtling around with very tired men in the back seats. But we were still no closer to knowing who would govern Britain.

Loose briefs

How did it happen? The Tories entered the campaign having endured two very ropey months. They lost momentum and clarity of message, which was never recovered. A key strategist admitted to me in the early hours of 7 May that there were faults in the "ground war" for seats: "Candidates [were] wandering around loosely briefed and some without even the blue rosette. [There was] a lot of confusion out there."

But what the party was saying was also shrouded in mystery. What exactly was the Conservative offer? It depended whom you asked. Most significantly, David Cameron had what one of his closest aides concedes was a "wandering" message on the economy. A party which had declared that slashing the deficit was a priority softened the edges of its message. The married person's tax allowance, which Cameron had once intended to put at the centre of his pitch for power, was in tatters, reduced from an ambitious attempt to mend "broken Britain" to a forlorn symbol of good intentions.

The "big society", Cameron's big idea, had great potential, but its contours were so vaguely defined that it sounded like awfully hard work on top of our day jobs and the tiresome business of everyday life. At the Battersea manifesto launch, the mood was hopeful but highly nervous. The brief from the top was firm: "No counter-intuitive change messages." In other words, don't lose the core vote to Ukip by talking about saving the planet or being nice to delinquents.

The problem for Cameron was that this was a campaign sculpted around his per­sonality and appeal - and it still didn't put him straight into Downing Street. (And this party, which loves a grudge, will store up that resentment.) The strain on the Tory leader has been immense. He has put on weight in the past few weeks, bemoaning the diet of "sandwiches, coffee and angst" on the road.

The only thrill of the early part of the campaign was the Conservative ploy of doubling back (again) on the priority of deficit reduction - and coming out against the government's planned National Insurance rise. In a battle fought on big ideas, this would have been a detail, but with little else to go on, Labour was boxed in to the "tax on jobs" corner - much to the frustration of that doughty campaigner, John Prescott. He told me of his concerns that the famed New Labour rebuttal machine had gone rusty. "It should have immediately been parried as an attack on health and schools spending. We let them define us far too easily."

The press relied heavily on the leaders' wives for a bit of colour in a campaign painted in shades of grey. The slicker edge of the Tory marketing machine brought us "Web Sam Cameron", showcasing a glowing Sam in a mid-market smock, apparently talking to her open fridge about Dave's
reliability. "He's never let me down." Nice to know.

Poor Sarah Brown tweeted about her daffodils like a Desperate Housewife. Trussed up in high-street attire, she had the tolerant but weary look of a woman doing what she has to do while sensing that disaster loomed. As for Miriam González Durántez, she appeared as a fetching St John the Baptist for her husband, Nick Clegg. Dazzling but unaffected, she won the hearts of the nation's working women by making it clear that she would rather be doing the day job than stomping around key marginals.

None of this mattered, however, once the debates crackled into life. "As of tomorrow," a senior Labour strategist said to me at the time, "nothing you've written earlier will matter." He was right. The refreshing thing about the Cleggster's breakthrough moment was that it was so unexpected that we all thought we had discovered it for ourselves.

It turned out that there was unusual accord. Brown's hug, "I agree with Nick," was intended to open a door to coalition. In the event, it only confirmed Clegg's status as primus inter pares in the widescreen war. His open countenance, informality and conspiratorial tone with the viewers were magnificent. Suddenly, we saw what we had been missing in Westminster's boy next door.

As he walked off the stage, I watched Dave give the Lib Dem leader a congratulatory thump on the back that looked rather more vicious than benign. The rise of Clegg seems especially painful to a Tory leader who has presented himself as the generational change Britain needs. From now on, parents with political ambitions for their offspring will be applying to Clegg's alma mater, Westminster, rather than to Eton.

Would the bubble burst? At Conservative Central Office, formerly bright faces were stricken. I asked one of Cameron's intimates what they would do if their man didn't make it into No 10. "None of us will still be here," he said. "And you'll be calling Liam Fox for quotes on when he's going to run."

That sense of fragility, of living on borrowed time, never left the Tories. But before we got to round three of the debates, a ghastly fate would strike Labour and Brown. Like the fallen heroes of Greek tragedy, he would be the author of his own misfortune.

The b-word

How did a prime minister surrounded by seasoned advisers get it so wrong? The encounter with Gillian Duffy was somewhere between The Wire and The Thick of It - with a touch of Frank Spencer thrown in. Brown's off-the-cuff diagnosis of her as a "bigoted woman" showed that Labour's connection to its core vote had been shattered. After all, Duffy had merely asked where eastern European migrants were "flocking from". Besides the obvious retort, we know what she meant, and the government has never found a straight answer.

The b-word belied Brown's vaunted intention to meet "real people". That said, we all know how easy it is to be caught out by a phone line left open, or a "reply to all" icon clicked on in error. The trouble is, it just would happen to Gordon, wouldn't it? As he put his head in his hands when the tape was played back to him during a radio interview, disdain mingled with sneaking sympathy.

Labour subsequently announced that its vote was "holding up", as if it were a dodgy pair of suspenders. The damage went deeper, however, and the prospect of Brown remaining Prime Minister, even if the coalition arithmetic was favourable to Labour, went down the drain.

The following night, on Thursday 29 April, when the three musketeers crossed swords on television for the last time, we saw Clegg's magic begin to fade, and a sleek, urgent Cameron admit that few people could understand exactly what his "big society" was about (which he somehow presented as a measure of its integrity, rather than an indication that it was a vague muddle of wishes and instincts). Brown, meanwhile, projected his best asset: avid seriousness.

Yet, his had been a weak campaign, not enhanced by his character and lacklustre projection. How must Brown's persistent tormentor Charles Clarke feel at being ousted in Norwich South while the leader clings on? I think we can guess. Out on the stump, Brown seemed grumpy, exhausted and tense from the start, overcompensating with the fixed grin of a man hiding vast deposits of despair and ill-feeling.

In the final week of the campaign, I went to Eltham in south London with Prescott, who was grumbling about Labour's poor preparation and its failure to launch a dry run of the campaign during the European elections in June 2009.

Peter Mandelson texted to congratulate Prezza on racking up 5,000 miles on the campaign trail. As he did so, Ed Balls was tantalising NS readers with the prospect of co-operation with the Lib Dems in the event of a hung parliament, while Peter Hain embraced it outright. Prescott's fury was as loud and immense as the man himself: "What's this piddling about with the electorate?"

In the end, there wasn't a lot of piddling about; just a panicked retreat, as Clegg candidly put it, to what people already knew. In that regard, Britain is a conservative nation. But this election has also shown that it is not an overwhelmingly Conservative one.

The Prime Minister's statement outside No 10 on 7 May was pure Robo-Gordon: you can deny him a majority and fail to give him a mandate as Labour leader, but he won't give up. One thing was for sure: he would have to be hosed out of Downing Street.

Later, Cameron emerged with a lengthy tract offering something called "confidence and supply" to the Liberal Democrats. He would agree to remove some of the more controversial Tory policies in return for Clegg supplying support. Lib Dems may consider this the equivalent of the ham-and-eggs joint venture proposed by the chicken to the pig. Clegg at least started by giving the impression he would do anything to avoid moving in with him. The chemistry is all wrong.

“We'll end up messing around with that Liberal bloke who's almost a Tory," Prescott prophesied. And it turns out he may have been right. Welcome to the era of no overall control - of almost everything.

Anne McElvoy is political columnist of the London Evening Standard and a regular presenter of "Night Waves" on Radio 3.