Well, this has gotten a lot more interesting than anyone would have predicted. At the moment, the facts are as follows:
(1) There are still 30-something seats that are undecided, most going through recounts at the moment;
(2) even once all those are decided, no single party will be able to form a parliamentary majority;
(3) at the moment, the Conservatives have 291 seats, Labour 251, the Lib Dems 52, and various small parties 27 (and this will probably change shortly);
(4) both the Tories and Labour came in where the polls predicted (at about 36% and 29% of the total vote, respectively), but the Lib Dems significantly under-performed, and currently stand at about 23% of the total vote—better than last time, but still hugely disappointing, no doubt—in fact, they’ve lost a couple of seats;
(5) the Tories got the largest number of votes, about 2 million votes ahead of Labour. At first blush, though, it looks like a lot of people who thought about voting Lib Dem ended up voting Labour. Turnout was very high overall, at about 65%–certainly higher than the last election. That seems to have happened in the case of my own totally useless MP, Glenda Jackson—she came in ahead of the Tory candidate by 44 votes. The Lib Dem candidate who was slightly favored by the polls to win actually came in third.
Where does this leave us? Well, in a bit of a mess. The consensus up to this morning was that the Lib Dems would get enough seats to be the swing factor in the formation of a new government if the Tories failed to get a majority. In actuality, they can’t—they don’t have enough seats to combine with where Labour is expected to be able to form a majority. In fact, the combined Lib Dem/Labour total seats will be about the same as that of the Tories, if present trends hold. This means the small parties become crucial, but this probably doesn’t help either. With the exception to the election of Britains’s first Green Party MP, these are all from Scotland and Northern Ireland, and the cost of bringing these parties into a coalition—no cuts to services to Northern Ireland or Scotland—will be politically intolerable to MPs from England.
So the possibilities now are the following:
1. The Tories try to form a minority government;
2. Labour tries to form a minority government;
3. A Tory/Lib Dem coalition that does form a majority.
The first two are both problematic, but possible, although it has to be said that the prospects for the Tories are better simply because they have more votes. However, at present thy only have 291 votes in Parliament, and unless they get over 300, this will be more difficult political argument to sustain. They will probably go over 300, though. But the Tories will still also be hugely disappointed, given expectations a month ago that they would be able on their own to form a comfortable majority. It relies, then, on the cooperation of the Lib Dems to actually pass legislation, and the Lib Dem price here probably will be (a) pass proportional representation (which the Tories have fiercely opposed in the past, (b) make Vince Cable the Chancellor, and (c) don’t do anything stupid about trying to disengage from Europe. In other words, there is a scenario where the Lib Dems would curb the natural potential excesses of the Tories. Most people could probably live with this. Except maybe the high number of Tories who viscerally oppose proportional representation, and who might actively try to prevent Cameron from pursuing this path. Which could kill any potential alignment between the two parties, and perhaps doom Tory efforts to from a minority government.
And except maybe Labour, who show signs of fighting on, maybe. Now, what happens next is more or less the following:
(1) The Queen asks Gordon Brown, as the sitting Prime Minister, whether he can form a government;
(2) Brown either says yes or no. If no, he resigns, and she then asks Cameron is he can form a government. (go to (3)—if yes, he has a week to try to do this, according to most sources I’ve checked, although there are some commentators on TV who are saying it could be longer;
(3) Cameron either says yes or no. If yes, he tries to form one, presumably along the lines described above. If no, I have no idea what happens next. But there has to be a government, so it will probably fall upon Cameron to say yes, either with a cobbled-together majority, or as a minority government. No one gives this more than six months, by the way, so we could be seeing more elections sooner than anyone might wish.
As I write this, Nick Clegg has just made a short speech, reiterating his previous comments that it’s his position that the party with the largest popular vote and the largest bunch of MPs should have an opportunity to try to form a government. This would be the Tories, of course. This was an offer to Cameron, and a challenge to Brown. And the day has just started. All of these people—politicians, advisors, commentators—are currently operating on the basis of no sleep, too, which has the potential to create interesting sorts of mischief.
At one level, this is hugely entertaining, of course. But politically, it’s a mess. What will Brown do? Who knows? At this point, he’s intimated he might try to motor ahead anyway, regardless of the actual outcome—the only real mandate he can claim is that he’s still the Prime Minister, but it’s a justifiable one in terms of both the law and protocol. But Cameron’s party got the most votes, and the most seats. So there will lots of blather about “mandates” today and the days to come. And this is going to involve a whole lot of negotiation, compromise, and flat out horse trading. The Lib Dems may not have gotten the electoral breakthrough that they wanted, but they may still hold the balance of power here. Except for those who actually have to sort this out, this is all pretty exciting. For political junkies like me, it doesn’t get much better than this.