And we’re off!

Today marks the start of Britain’s general election campaign. On this I have mixed feelings; any political journalist loves a good contest, with all its twists and turns, and I am no different. But there is always the potential for the worst of party politics to come out and dominate, with each side accusing each other of being ‘posh’ (Labour on the Tories) or ‘incompetent’ (vice versa), with the issues buried under screaming headlines, and reminding me why I find British politics simultaneously boring and irritating. We shall have to see.

Expect to hear Labour harp on and on about the NHS, convincing voters that the Tories cannot be trusted to look after the nation’s last remaining treasure – name calling dressed up as policy. Expect to be so familiar with Tory economic statistics that you can repeat them in your sleep (1000 jobs created per day in the last parliament, anyone?). And expect everyone to fall over themselves trying to outdo Nigel Farage’s ridiculous immigration rhetoric. It could all get very boring, especially as both PM candidates are unappealing characters whom it is hard to get behind. Despite major ideological differences, the only leader I fancy as PM is the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon – perhaps we could persuade her to jump ship to Labour.

David Cameron and Ed Miliband
Feeling inspired?

Yet this election certainly has the potential to excite. With just under 40 days to go until polling day, no one can yet call the result. Barring major upset (Ed reattempting the bacon sandwich, Cameron turning out to own most of Berkshire or whatnot), it’s going to be close. This may force the parties to actually discuss things; to persuade voters of the value of their ideas and to defend their records (indeed, Labour still hasn’t escaped the shadow of its last term). They certainly can’t rely on their images. Neither party is popular – the Tories burnt by austerity, Labour dragged down by its ever-misfortunate leader – so a majority government is unlikely.

This means that the main point of interest will actually come in the days after May 7th, when coalition-building occurs. Here, the dynamic is most different to how it was five years ago. Britain has gone from a two- to three- to multi-party system in a remarkably short period, and no one knows quite how this will play out. The options are multiple and far from promising. If Labour is the largest party, a deal with the SNP seems most logical, although the idea is so unpopular south of the border that Miliband had to rule it out. I hope he sticks to his pledge, but the lure of Number 10 may prove too strong. If the SNP are out, perhaps the Greens are in, although their early surge has burnt out and they’ve returned to the background. Next week’s seven party debate may help them regain lost ground. This is possibly the best outcome for Labour – the Greens will be pliable. Or perhaps, having forced Nick Clegg to walk the plank for his tuition fees-related sins, Labour will embrace the Liberal Democrats, its once natural allies. Despite everything this is where I would put my money – providing, of course, that the Lib Dems are not decimated at the polls.

The Tories have fewer options if they emerge as the largest party. If they are only a few seats short of a majority, they may shack up with Ukip – this is my ‘worst case scenario’ and should be yours too. Such a deal would be popular with old-fashioned backbench Tory MPs and local party activists, but would turn the leadership so green that it remains unlikely. So we could see ourselves back where we started, with a Lib-Con coalition. Many would be angry, and the irony far from negligible, but at least Clegg’s hide would be spared.

Of course, the largest party could choose to go it alone and form a minority government. This would be brave, especially for the Tories – Labour may be able to rely on a confidence and supply agreement with the SNP. It would also be quite stupid; the uncertainty would be hugely destabilising, and the government would almost certainly be doomed to failure. The last minority government lasted a grand total of five months. Let’s hope, for the sake of everyone’s sanity, that it doesn’t come to this. The prospect of doing this all again before Christmas does not appeal.

Over the next 37 days this may all become much clearer, although that would take a momentous change of feeling. As things stand, even when political journalists like me have stayed up into the small hours of May 8th to see all the results come in, it is unlikely that we will know which parties will form the new government. That will take a few more days of backroom dealing and fierce negotiating. The real question is whether, by then, many people will actually care. That is up to the behaviour of the parties.

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