The security of tenure associated with the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act has been welcome, but it has also meant that the general election campaign started four months before polling day on the first Monday of the year.
While this stability has sustained a fully functioning coalition, and contributed to market and business confidence, we are looking at something far from certain when we see the final tally on 8 May.
Some things are possible to deduce from the opinion polls. The era of the universal swing is over, with the regional and minor parties making a big impact in what will be 650 ‘local elections’. Whereas Labour and the Conservatives between them used to poll over 90 per cent of the popular vote, next month, they will fragment votes to secure barely 60 per cent of the vote; and with numerous three- and four-way marginal seats, voters will be more mobile and more aware that their vote counts in their constituency contest.
This will contribute to around a quarter of the reconstituted House of Commons being new MPs. No single party will command a majority in Parliament, and as even a coalition of two parties may fail to get over the line needed to form a majority, any one of numerous permutations ranging from minority government to another coalition may apply. We are looking at a weak government, and a possible second general election.
If Nick Clegg loses his seat, or if his Liberal Democrat party is obliterated, his resignation may be the first act we witness the morning after. Likewise, UKIP leader Nigel Farage may go if he fails to take Thanet South. So we may be catapulted into two leadership contests before any talk of coalition permutations is entertained.
Complex discussion will take several days as David Cameron and Ed Miliband’s teams begin the process of dialogue with the smaller parties. Concessions will be offered, money will be found and legislation will be dropped in the hope of working out a deal. Parties with a handful of seats will wield considerable power.
The Welsh nationalists have stated that they would want the Barnett Formula to apply to Wales as it does to Scotland, thus delivering an additional £1.2bn a year for Wales. The DUP will demand an increase to Northern Ireland’s block grant by £2bn, as well as concessions to reduce tax differentials with Ireland to VAT, corporation tax and air passenger duty. The Greens are supportive of calls to scrap Trident, and are keen to go further to ensure there is no nuclear deterrent. UKIP is demanding an EU referendum in 2015, even though the Prime Minister would not have time to renegotiate.
We are witnessing a truly multi-party election, and are looking at a multi-party government, and one that holds promise for what were previously the smaller, regional and single-issue parties. Whether it leads to stability for the next five years is hard to predict, but certainly the next few weeks will be fascinating. Let the horse-trading begin.
John Lehal is MD of ICG (Insight Consulting Group)