NOT for a generation has the outcome of a British general election been so uncertain. Yet there are two certainties about the aftermath of the May 7 ballot: it will take many days, if not weeks, to form a government, and nobody can now predict how Britain's new government would look.
Here's a look at the various scenarios:
Highly unlikely scenarios
A Labour or a Conservative majority government
- The two main parties have alternated in power for over a century, and almost always with an overall parliamentary majority. But a solid, one-party government is the least likely result in this election.
- Neither the ruling Conservative Party nor the opposition Labour appears likely to get at least the 326 MPs they need to dominate the 650-seat Parliament. In reality, the magic number is 323, since some Northern Irish MPs get elected but traditionally do not vote, and the Speaker of the House of Commons holds his own seat, but also does not vote. Yet neither party looks likely to reach that lower threshold either: current opinion polls project that the Conservatives would be lucky to have 280 to 290 MPs, with Labour slightly less than that.
A "grand coalition" between Labour and Conservatives
Although this is popular in other European countries, such as Germany where coalitions are the norm, the option is highly unlikely to even be considered in London. The mutual hatred between the country's two biggest parties is too great to bridge.
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A coalition between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats
- A link-up with Britain's third- largest political party will be a continuation of the coalition which Conservative leader and current Prime Minister David Cameron has headed for the past five years. But the snag is that the Lib-Dems, as they are colloquially known, are likely to be punished by their electorate for unpopular decisions taken while in government, and are therefore likely to lose a large chunk of the 57 MPs they had in the outgoing Parliament.
- How many seats they will lose will largely dictate their availability for a coalition. If the Conservatives gain about 290 seats - the current upper end of their predictions - and the Lib-Dems retain around 30 seats, then the current coalition may be able to survive, perhaps with the help of a handful of MPs from the Protestant community in Northern Ireland, who tend to vote with the Conservatives. But backbenchers in both the Conservative and Lib-Dem camps are unhappy about the tie-up, and may decide to have their say before a coalition is formed.
A Conservative minority government
- If a coalition with the Lib-Dems and a few Northern Ireland MPs does not work but the Conservatives still have the highest number of MPs, Mr Cameron may insist on his moral right to remain prime minister and challenge the others to vote him down.
- The key test for the government may come on May 27, when Queen Elizabeth II opens the new Parliament with a speech written for her by her government; if the government loses the vote on that speech, traditionally this required the prime minister's resignation. But recent legislation has changed that tradition, and the only way to topple a government is by passing a specific vote of no-confidence.
- Mr Cameron may bet that although he can always be out-voted by his opponents, none would be in a hurry to pull the government down and trigger early elections, so the government can limp on for a while.
- Mr Cameron may also rely indirectly on MPs from the UK Independence Party (UKIP), a movement devoted to pulling Britain out of the European Union. But UKIP is unlikely to have more than a handful of seats, and the outcome will still be a highly unstable government, facing the constant risk of defeat from its traditional opponents and also from its own rebellious backbenchers.
A Labour coalition with the Lib-Dems
- Theoretically, this makes perfect sense, partly because the Lib-Dems are actually closer in ideological terms to the centre-left Labour. But this would be relevant only if Labour leader Ed Miliband manages to get at least 290 MPs elected on Thursday, for otherwise a coalition with the Lib-Dems will still not deliver a working majority.
A Labour-Scottish coalition
- The biggest upset in these elections has been the rise of the Scottish National Party (SNP), which is dedicated to gaining Scotland's independence from the UK. The SNP is predicted to win up to 50 out of Scotland's 59 parliamentary seats, an astonishing result for a party which had only six MPs in the outgoing Parliament. So a coalition with Labour would make perfect sense, and may easily cross the threshold of power.
- The snag is that all of the SNP's electoral gains come at the expense of Labour, which used to control Scotland, so Labour leaders would be loath to reach a deal with the party which stands for their mortal danger. And the SNP is not very keen to be in government either; it cherishes its image as an opponent of any government in London.
Besides, the SNP is pledged to give up Britain's nuclear weapons, a "red line" for Mr Miliband, whose party is pledged to keep Britain's nuclear capability.
Labour minority government
If Mr Miliband gets 270 seats or more and a Cameron government has been rejected by lawmakers, Mr Miliband may choose to go it alone, daring the other parties to vote him down. That will obviate the need for a deal with the SNP, and Labour strategists privately argue that they would not have to make too many concessions to the Scots, because the SNP could not afford to bring down the government, for at least a year, especially since regional elections are scheduled in Scotland for next year, and these are now the SNP's biggest priority.
- Still, a Labour minority government will be open to blackmail from the SNP on an almost daily basis, and Labour may also suffer a backlash in its heartland constituencies in north England, where resentment against the Scots is growing.