So the exit polls released at 10:00 last night, which appeared a bit implausible at the time, seem to have been about right. The Conservatives are likely to be just over 300, Labour between 250 and 260, and the LibDems under 60. Is it possible for every party to lose an election–every major party that is?
Presumably David Cameron has been closely studying Stephen Harper, and will try to do as much as he can with a plurality of seats, treading carefully while also daring the opposition to vote down bills deemed to be matters of “confidence” and force a new election. On the other hand, Gordon Brown remains PM and indications are he will try to make a deal with Nick Clegg and the LibDems. Clegg appeared to throw cold water on the idea earlier this morning, reiterating his statement during the campaign that a party that has the most seats and votes should be given a chance. Of course, a chance is not a guarantee; his statement appeared to leave open other possibilities if he does not like what Cameron has to say to him.
Then again, maybe Cameron won’t have much to say to Clegg. It looks to me as if the small regional parties are the only real “winners.” Cameron may talk to them first about gaining at least their abstention on a budget and Queen’s Speech. I am not sure that deals between one national party and a set of regional parties would be very good for British democracy. Maybe it’s even the worst possible outcome, other than Labour having come third in votes and first in seats, as several projections a couple of weeks ago implied. On the other hand, Spanish democracy works relatively well with a big national party dealing selectively with regional parties. Maybe that’s the real “doing something different” that will come out of this election. The price demanded by such parties, such as the Northern Ireland DUP, might not be very high for a national plurality party to pay–concessions on budgets and authority for the regional governments, for example.* Of course, the current economic situation might make even the relatively low price too high to pay, at least politically.
Another winner is the Green Party. Even if they have only one seat (Brighton Pavilion), Caroline Lucas, currently an MEP, will be the first UK Green MP. That’s one more seat for the potential “progressive coalition” that Brown would like to stitch together. Such a coalition would have more seats than the Tories (apparently), and a majority of the votes. But would it be progressive or regressive? It would be a coalition centered on two parties that took substantial steps back in seat totals (though the Liberal Democrats apparently gained about a percentage point in votes on their 2005 share). And it, too, would need to deal with regional parties.
Another possibility might be a formal opposition agreement between Labour and the Liberal Democrats to serve as an alternative government-in-waiting, and which would try to legislate some of its priorities over the heads of the Conservatives, while letting Cameron’s team put in place (and pay the expected political price for) most of its budget plans. Electoral reform via an opposition majority? That would be a strange and interesting outcome! Not that I am predicting or betting on it…
We will not know right away who will be PM, but the safe money remains on Cameron as head of a single-party minority cabinet.
Update (9 May, 11 a.m. UK time): Later in the day, Friday, Cameron implied he would pursue a formal coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Talks are ongoing as of Sunday, though it will remain a difficult agreement to pull off.
* In a surprise, the First Minister of Northern Ireland (and Westminster MP), Peter Robinson, lost his East Belfast seat. (Presumably much to do with the sensational scandal that surrounded the “Swish Family Robinson” in recent months.)