LONDON (Reuters) - Britons are voting in an election that could go a long way to determine the future cohesion of the UK and its place in Europe. This one really matters.
No recent poll has put either main party above 35 percent of the vote into the sort of territory where an outright majority starts to become possible. The aggregated poll of polls tells a remarkably similar story and has barely budged in two months of campaigning.
Exit polls will be published at 2100 GMT and if it’s as close as it looks, it could be well after sun-up on Friday before the result is clear.
The Conservatives look marginally more likely to win the largest number of parliamentary seats, but the way the country is carved up electorally means they would need to be several points ahead of Labour in voting share to be confident of securing an overall majority.
Further complicating the arithmetic are the facts that the Scottish National Party (SNP) is poised to trounce Labour north of the border while the anti-EU UK Independence Party will take a lot of Conservative votes in England.
With economic recovery entrenched, political history suggests an “incumbency factor” should kick in for the Conservatives when people go into the ballot box.
If it does, they may be able to govern again with the Liberal Democrats, although many of those pro-European centrists are reluctant to repeat the bruising experience of the last five years which has seen their support collapse.
A lot of Conservatives are equally unhappy about another coalition.
Labour has more partner options than the Conservatives – the SNP could win 50 seats or more while the LibDems will be lucky to get 30 – so could form a government even if the Conservatives win more seats.
The Conservative line that this would yield a Labour government held to ransom by left-wing Scottish secessionists is questionable. One thing that could damage the SNP’s standing in Scotland would be to pull down a Labour administration and allow the Conservatives back in. It already has one eye on Scottish elections in 2016 and so would have a powerful incentive to vote with Labour on budgets and other key laws, while demonstrating its independence on less crucial matters.
That may be why Ed Miliband has felt able to rule out any formal deal with the SNP.
If Prime Minister David Cameron does have the largest number of seats he will undoubtedly try to form an administration. For all the talk about the legitimacy or illegitimacy of different governments, there is only one test that counts - the ability to pass a legislative programme through parliament. If it is voted down, the government falls and the other side will get a chance to have a go. The SNP and Labour will certainly vote against him.
This is from the Cabinet Manual attached to a law on fixed term parliaments that Cameron passed in 2011: “An incumbent government is entitled to wait until the new Parliament has met to see if it can command the confidence of the House of Commons, but is expected to resign if it becomes clear that it is unlikely to be able to command that confidence and there is a clear alternative.”
Parliament will reconvene on May 18 with a government to put forward its legislative plans on May 27 which will then be voted on in early June.
In the meantime, assuming neither party has an absolute majority, there will be all sorts of jockeying for position. If neither party can build enough support to pass a “Queen’s Speech” legislative slate, we could be looking at another election which only the Conservatives will have any meaningful funds left to fight.
Some manifesto pledges will quickly bite the dust if the main ruling party has to deal with others for support. The Conservatives’ promise to legislate against any personal tax rise for the next five years is likely to be one of the first one on the cutting room floor if they lead the next government.
But Cameron has insisted his promised EU referendum is not up for negotiation.
The key opinion poll lines have barely budged over the past two months. What have perceptibly moved are Miliband’s and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon’s personal ratings (upwards). Will that be decisive? The Labour leader still lags Cameron when voters are asked who would make the best prime minister.
The Conservatives remain well ahead in terms of perceived economic competence and that really should count. But a negative campaign - “competence not chaos” etc. - may have neutralised that by failing to alight on a strong positive message to vote for them.
This was Conservative polling guru Lord Ashcroft last week: “It seems to me that if one of your problems as a party is that some of the voters you need think you are ‘nasty’, then launching personal attacks against your opponent is not the best way to capitalise.”
If the Conservatives don’t come first, Cameron will almost certainly be finished. After running a better campaign than expected, Miliband might well survive a narrow defeat.
The vast majority of the dead tree media have come out in favour of the Conservatives or a repeat of their coalition with the LibDems. But never has the power of the print press to sway votes felt less potent.
Miliband was lampooned for agreeing to an interview with comedian Russell Brand. But Brand has nearly 10 million Twitter followers.
The main justification for Britain’s first-past-the-post system, given that it does not fairly reflect the vote in terms of parliamentary seats, has long been that it delivers stable one-party government. Now it does not, could that rekindle debate about reforming the electoral system? There’s no sign no far, largely because the big parties know they would get fewer seats.
Would a minority government be so bad? Administrations with big majorities legislate furiously because they can, intervening in every corner of life. Would a smaller number of laws, given they would have to be agreed with others, be detrimental?
Much of Europe is used to coalition government without disasters. And the interconnected nature of the world economy, and power of financial markets, should ensure no one does anything too stupid.
Editing by Toby Chopra/Jeremy Gaunt