The final Guardian/ICM poll Wednesday evening put the center-right Conservative Party and center-left main opposition Labour Party at 35 percent each, meaning a hung parliament is all but certain.
A hung parliament is when no party wins an overall majority of 326 seats in the 650-seat lower house of parliament. As the Irish separatist party Sinn Fein and speaker of the House of Commons do not vote, the effective majority is 323 seats.
The last British election in 2010 ended in such a hung parliament and led to the creation of a coalition government between the Conservatives and centrist Liberal Democrat Party.
Though tied in the polls, British political commentators expect the Conservatives to emerge as the largest party and win the most number of votes — albeit short of an overall majority in the House of Commons.
The reasons are numerous.
Firstly, the incumbency factor is likely to sway undecided voters in the polling booth wary of change.
Secondly, the so-called “shy Conservative factor” is a recurring issue in pre-election polling. Conservative supporters are sometimes reluctant to tell pollsters their intentions as the party suffers from a “nasty party” stereotype of hating the poor and supporting the rich. In 1992, the two main parties were also tied in the polls, but the final results gave the Conservatives a 7.2 percent lead over Labour.
Thirdly, Labour is facing electoral oblivion in their Scottish heartland at the hands of the left-wing separatist Scottish Nationalist Party.
The SNP’s popularity has risen exponentially in Scotland after a defeated independence referendum on Sept. 18 last year.
One poll last week projected they would win all 59 of Scotland’s seats, though Labour’s longstanding history north of the border means the final result will more likely be in the region of 50 seats.
This SNP surge will certainly deprive Labour of a majority government, and may allow the Conservatives to emerge as the single largest party in a majority anti-Conservative parliament.
The closeness of the election throws up a whole host of possible outcomes.
Britain’s unwritten constitution gives the leader of the largest party first pick to try and form a government.
This principle was enshrined in the U.K. government’s Cabinet Manual, which sets out the main laws, rules and conventions affecting the conduct and operation of government.
If the Conservatives can win anywhere between 280 and 290 seats, they would be in a good position to form another coalition.
They would need the support of Liberal Democrats, again, regardless of the number of seats they win.
But the closer the Conservatives slide toward 280 seats, the more reliant they would be on Northern Ireland’s center-right Democratic Unionist Party and the right-wing anti-EU, anti-immigrant UKIP.
This would be a chaotic and hard-right coalition, but a coalition nonetheless.
If this route fails, Labour would point to paragraph 2.12 of the Cabinet Manual, which states that the incumbent government “is expected to resign if it becomes clear that it is unlikely to be able to command that confidence (of parliament) and there is a clear alternative.”
Labour could emerge with anywhere between 260 to 270 seats.
Labour leader Ed Miliband has previously ruled out a formal coalition with the SNP, whose seats would bring Labour a parliamentary majority or just short.
They have also ruled out a looser supply-and-confidence agreement, whereby the SNP would support Labour’s budget in return for concessions elsewhere.
This only leaves the possibility of Labour ruling as a minority administration, battling through the next five years on a vote-by-vote basis.
As the SNP has pledged to their supporters to “locking (Conservative Prime Minister) David Cameron out of Downing Street,” Labour would essentially dare them to vote down their budget.
They would pursue a similar strategy with the Conservatives, with whom they share a similar defense policy.
The further Labour slide to 260 seats, they more they will find themselves reliant on the left-wing Greens, Northern Ireland’s center-left Social Democratic and Labour Party and the center-left Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru — in addition to the SNP and Liberal Democrats.
This would be a chaotic and hard-left coalition, but a coalition nonetheless.
Coups and counter-coups
The center-right Times newspaper said Monday Cameron should “occupy Downing Street,” regardless of whether he has a majority in parliament.
“I just think that there’s a massive credibility problem, with this idea that you can have a Labour government, backed by the SNP,” Cameron told a London radio station Tuesday.
Over 3,000 people have joined a Facebook event titled “Protest: Stop the ‘Tory Coup,'” against what they call a potential “constitutional coup.”
“Tories (Conservatives) and their supporters in the press are preparing a post-election plan to stay in office even if Labour and the SNP have more seats in parliament,” the event description said.
Former cabinet secretary Lord O’Donnell, who played a key role in the 2010 coalition negotiations, rubbished the Conservative leader’s claims.
“We live in a parliamentary democracy. The rules are very clear and they are laid out in the Cabinet Manual, and it says the ability of government to command the confidence of the elected House of Commons is central to its authority to govern,” he told the BBC Radio 4 on Wednesday, pouring cold water on the idea that the prime minister had to lead the party with the most seats in parliament.
There are signs of splits within Conservative ranks over Cameron’s claims.
“Of course they (SNP) have a right to come to parliament and to act as parliamentarians,” Lord Forsyth, the last Conservative Scotland secretary, said, backing Lord O’Donnell.
Conservative Home Secretary Theresa May, however, said a Labour-SNP alliance would create the “worst crisis since the abdication,” when Edward VIII gave up the throne in 1936, and accused Miliband of wanting to “seize power” without winning the most seats.
Lord O’Donnell was unwavering, though.
“You could argue that in 2010 the coalition [did] not win every part of the kingdom, [and[ individual MPs can get through without winning a majority of the votes in that constituency,” he said.
It seems likely after polls close in the U.K. at 2200GMT that Britain faces an uncertain future Friday morning.
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