Neville de Silva, in The Sunday Times, 3 May 2015, where the title is “UK Polls: Looking for A Tenant at No. 10″
It has never been like this for the past several decades. This lacklustre election campaign will most certainly end up with a hung parliament. If voters had half a chance they will hang not only the parliament, but many of the candidates out to dry. They are fed up. Such has been the mood of a people tired of politics and politicians. A plague on both your houses wrote England’s most celebrated bard in “Romeo and Juliet”. If the current public mood can be discerned it must be more like a plague on all your houses meaning those parties in England, which are struggling to perform well enough to put together a government that could at least limp into Westminster.
That mood of public apathy seems to have permeated the epidermis of the party leaders too, as their public performances and the ability to stir not only an interest but also faith in their promises among the voters appears to have deserted them.
Last Thursday, I watched the BBC TV programme Question Time hosted by veteran journalist David Dimbleby. The leaders of the three main parties — Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem — appeared before a live audience of voters from Leeds in a 90-minute programme, in which each leader separately had 28 minutes to answer questions thrown at them.
Had David Cameron, Ed Miliband or Nick Clegg succeeded in changing the minds of at least a few of those voters to cast their ballots in favour of the party they lead come 7 May, it would indeed have been some achievement.
The truth is that a substantial slice of registered voters is going to stay away or is still undecided because the main parties have failed to bestir them to shed their indifference or their cynicism of political promises and go to the polling booths later this week.
Perhaps some of them eventually will, but that is not going to be enough to change the current mood and produce a decisive result that would make the forming of a government after 7 May any easier.
But I doubt that will happen. The end result is that a minority government seems inevitable whether it be Conservative or Labour. Curiously perhaps it is the British electoral system that has in a way led to this impasse. The first-past-the post system that Sri Lanka now seems to be heading towards with some minor adjustments was intended to produce majority governments that would, by and large, ensure political stability. But that is not happening. Coalition governments or minority governments with support from smaller parties on an issue-by-issue basis appear to be what Britain has settled down to.
The old two-party or perhaps two and a half party (Lib Dems included) system that had prevailed is breaking up with the emergence of regional parties such as the now formidable Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) that led the charge on Scottish independence at last year’s referendum or even anti-European immigration ones such as the UK Independence Party (UKIP) that have been weaning voters away from the main parties. What seems probable right now is that on May 7 the Conservatives will emerge as the single largest party, though with lesser seats than they had in the last parliament. Labour will eat into some of the seats the Tories now hold while the Conservatives might pick up some from their coalition partner, Lib-Dems.
Labour will come second and interestingly the Scottish SNP will most likely sweep Labour out of Scotland and emerge as the third largest party in Westminster. This will not only change the whole electoral map of Scotland, but also redraw the make-up of parliament.
The Liberal Democrats will stagger in fourth having lost seats to parties on both the Left and the Right.
The one fact that nobody disputes is that without an overall majority no party will be able to form a government without leaning on others for parliamentary support. The intriguing question then is who will be looking for support from whom and what will be the price they will have to pay for it.
If the Conservatives come on top as I expect, who will they talk to? Will they return to an arrangement with the Lib-Dems, their coalition partner of the past five years? What is the price the Lib-Dems will extract even if they feel inclined to hold hands with the Tories again after their public image received some battering because of their marriage to the Tories in 2010.
Even if such a stitching together seems possible one wonders how many seats the two parties would jointly hold in parliament. My own feeling is that even jointly they will not have a majority to run a government. So, as far as the Conservatives are concerned, the chances of a sustainable coalition would appear difficult unless they depend on the help of smaller parties with 10 or less seats.
If the Conservatives do somehow form a minority government, come the Throne Speech, all the others might have enough votes to get together and defeat the Conservatives.
The other scenario is for Labour to cobble together a government even though it will by most accounts, trail the Conservatives. The Scottish SNP will be the only other party that will have enough seats to prop up a minority Labour government.
No wonder then that the Conservatives have started scare-mongering. In these last few days in the run-up to the election, the Conservatives are scaring the English public into believing that if Labour and the SNP agree on some kind of arrangement in Westminster, the Scottish terrier’s tail will be wagging the English bulldog.
Ed Miliband knows how dangerous that could be for his prospects of being prime minister. On Question Time he categorically dismissed any suggestion of a tie-up with the SNP. Like Daniel long before him, he went into the lion’s den on Friday where he said in Scotland that there will be no coalition, no deals with the SNP.
But whether this also means that Labour which is committed like the Conservatives for the union of Great Britain might still work out some arrangement with Scottish nationalists who stand for an independent Scotland will be an abhorrent proposition to English voters. It is a question that will linger in the minds of English voters as they consider to whom they should cast their ballots.
Though national polls give the Conservatives a marginal lead, it is difficult to forecast as there will be tactical voting, with supporters of one party voting for another in an effort to keep out a political foe.
I am going to stick my neck out say that I expect the Conservatives to win 282 seats; Labour 271; SNP 49 and Lib Dems 24. I may be completely wrong given that this is the most uncertain election in decades.
One thing is certain, though. At the end of it all, whoever goes through the doors of No 10 Downing Street will do so on crutches.
ALSO SEE Chris Patten: “Lies, Damn Lies and the British Election,” 29 April 2015, http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/british-election-lies-by-chris-patten-2015-04