The British electorate has resolved to be irresolute. It displayed no desire to grant either Labour or the Conservatives a parliamentary majority during the “long campaign” of December to March. There is little evidence that it will amend this stance during the season’s “short” counterpart. The only force that seems destined to triumph is the “Hung Parliament Party”, the mythical outfit imagined by a 2010 Conservative election broadcast.
Compared to the confusion and machinations that could follow an indecisive result on 7 May, that contest now resembles a model of stability. Parliament was hung for the first time since February 1974 but a new government with a comfortable majority (78 seats) was formed within five days of the result. It agreed a comprehensive policy programme and, contrary to the predictions of most, endured for a full term. The coalition’s greatest legacy is the fact of its survival. No party can now argue that a hung parliament is an intrinsic obstacle to stability.
But a parliament as divided as the one likely to be returned on 7 May could well be. For the Tories and Labour, the nightmare scenario of being unable to assemble a majority with Liberal Democrat support alone remains. As a result of the SNP’s continuing surge – the most remarkable swing of the post-1945 era – it is possible and even probable that it will hold the balance of power after the election. A party that now has just six MPs could soon have as many as 50.
It is this psephological phenomenon that underpins the Tories’ bare-knuckle assault on Ed Miliband for refusing to rule out a deal with the SNP (if not a full coalition). The irony is that, amid David Cameron’s indignation, some in his own party have been considering how he and the Nationalists could work together. One Conservative MP recently suggested to me that the Tories could offer Scotland full fiscal autonomy in return for support or abstention in confidence-and-supply votes. Yet Alex Salmond’s vow to bring down any Conservative-led government at the first opportunity (made in his interview with the New Statesman) has closed off this option just as it was beginning to gain traction. Cameron, in a surreal moment of indiscipline, ruled out serving a third term; Salmond may now have ruled out a second. If Labour and the SNP hold at least 323 seats between them (the number required for a majority excluding the abstentionist Sinn Fein), the Prime Minister will have no means of survival.
Even if the two parties fall short of this total, Cameron could still be forced to depart if they outnumber the votes he can amass. It is this that creates the possibility that, for the first time since 1924 (when Ramsay MacDonald became the inaugural Labour prime minister), the second-largest party could form the government. The Lib Dems, however, privately insist that they would not support Labour if it lacked the legitimacy of finishing first on either votes or seats. “We won’t accept a coalition of the defeated,” one MP told me, noting the likelihood that the Lib Dems will finish fourth on votes to Ukip. The resultant fear at Westminster is that Britain could face a Continental-style stalemate, with neither Labour nor the Tories able to command the support necessary to pass a Queen’s Speech. It is this that explains the attraction to some, as absurd as it may seem, of a grand coalition between the two main parties.
There is a logic, then, to the Conservatives’ favoured dichotomy of “competence v chaos”. The problem is how much the messengers have done to undermine the message. It is hard to run a campaign based on economic security and stability when the Office for Budget Responsibility, the independent watchdog established by George Osborne, has warned of a public spending “roller coaster” under a future Conservative government, with even deeper cuts followed by a distant splurge. It is hard to pose as the party of business while raising the possibility of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, the UK’s largest trading partner. And it is hard to be the party of strong leadership when the Prime Minister has unilaterally imposed a sell-by date on his premiership, an invitation to his regicidal backbenchers to devour him even earlier than planned. As Cameron stumbles, there is hope among Labour strategists that Miliband will win belated admiration for his resilience after having “the kitchen sink, the washing machine and any spare cutlery” thrown at him.
Whichever man enters Downing Street and by whatever means, the election increasingly resembles a staging post rather than a destination. Unlike the great, clarifying contests of 1945, 1979 and 1997, it will offer little guidance to the country’s future direction. Even if they were gifted majorities, neither Cameron nor Miliband would effect the fundamental change that some in their parties crave. The latter’s programme has proved to be more incrementalist and modest than his left-wing supporters had hoped. “If you rescue the NHS and you raise people’s wages and you deal with zero-hours contracts, if you build 200,000 homes a year, if you put tuition fees down to £6,000 a year, if you put young, unemployed people back to work – if you do all those things, you’re in business,” he said recently, speaking as a moderate social democrat. And after Cameron relinquished his “big society” vision in favour of Crosbyite minimalism, it is less clear than ever what he would do with the final term he seeks.
The most momentous decisions facing Britain are external to the election. In 2017, the UK could vote on whether to end its 44-year-long membership of the EU. At some point in the next decade, Scotland will almost certainly again be invited to secede. Rather than resolving these existential questions, the election will sharpen them.