As the polls have steadily narrowed in the course of 2010, the words 'hung parliament' have been on everyone's lips - but with very little analysis of what such a result would mean in practice.
In our first-past-the-post system, we have become accustomed to the idea of one party coming out of a general election with an overall majority.
The two elections of 1974 seem a distant memory. But the time has come to dust off the annals and think about what happens when there is no clear result from a general election.
There are, in fact, five broad types of result we might expect from this May's poll:
1. A majority, however small, for the Conservatives: this is still the most likely outcome on the evidence;
2. The Conservatives as the largest party but able to form a majority with the Liberal Democrats;
3. Labour as the largest party but able to form a majority with the Lib Dems;
4. Neither party being able to form a majority with the Lib Dems (I call this the 'Italian result');
5. A Labour majority - still a slight possibility, on account of the way the electoral boundaries favour Labour.
It is also technically possibly for the Conservatives to form a majority with the Democratic Unionist Party, but this would be agony for the Tories. Getting into bed with the DUP would be playing with fire in terms of the ever-febrile Northern Ireland peace settlement. The party would never be forgiven for putting power before the difficult and reversible road to peace in the Province.
Leaving aside the above, the strong chance that neither of the two parties will have a majority after the votes are counted remains very real. It will be for the Conservatives to argue that, after 13 years of Labour Government, the public's appetite for change must be recognised. Even without being the largest party, the argument will go, the Conservatives should be called to the palace and asked to form a minority government. After all, Alex Salmond has made a pretty good fist of it north of the border, largely through force of personality and a great dollop of political chutzpah.
Senior officials advising the Queen and at Number 10 and the Cabinet Office will have to consult the constitutional annals and take a view on who should get the call in the light of the result. This raises the question of whether Gordon Brown will indeed insist that he is entitled to go on, a la the Iron Lady, if there is an ambiguous result.
If we are to assume a minority government, of whatever hue, we will enter novel, but not entirely uncharted, territory in our political life. The closest recent comparison is the period from 1992-1997. During this time, recalled by me and my colleague Wilf Weeks (former adviser to Edward Heath), John Major's slim majority was steadily eroded, largely by his sexually adventurous MPs.
With the grip on power so slight, political groups at the margins will begin to exert power in Parliament. They will hold sway over the actions of a government seeking desperately to pursue some form of coherent programme, which does not seem prey to the narrow sectional interest of a procession of political bedfellows.
Campaigners on issues ranging from animal welfare and the environment to schooling and speed cameras, the trade unions, rural interest groups, independent MPs, the various Ulster Unionists and, of course, the Lib Dems will all seek to exert their influence on the Government and Parliament.
Votes will be tight, whipping furious, ministers nervous and overworked.
Don't expect the public to sympathise, nor the markets to rejoice in the political sideshows and the uncertainty they will create for our fragile recovery.
VIEWS IN BRIEF
- Who are your five fantasy dinner party guests from the political world?
Queen Elizabeth I, the fourth Roman emperor Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus, Napoleon, Boudicca and Italian military and political leader Garibaldi.
- Predict one thing that will happen in the week running up to the election.
A series of misleading polls will be published, only to be contradicted by the election result.
- A hung parliament: good or bad news for public affairs?
Very good news - every decision becomes lobbyable. How different from 1997.