The Null Device
In two days, the United Kingdom will go to the polls to elect a new parliament. It is all but certain that this will result in a hung parliament, the exact nature and composition of the next government will not be known for weeks afterward, and the government will be a fractious and unstable one.
The last general election, in 2010, also produced a hung parliament. The Conservatives won more seats than Labour, though nowhere near enough to govern in their own right; the cards were held by the Liberal Democrats, then seen as a modern centre-left party, free of both the patrician hauteur and residual Thatcherite toxicity of the Tories and the oily Blairite triangulation, Blunkettian authoritarianism and half-buried old-school socialism of the Labour Party; consequently, throughout the campaign, they were vilified pitilessly by the (then dominant) Murdoch press and right-wing tabloids. After the election, the tone changed rapidly, and both parties courted the Lib Dems as a governing partner. The Lib Dems ended up going with the Tories, promising to moderate their nastier extremes, and promptly betrayed their electoral manifesto by voting for a sharp increase in university tuition fees, in return for a Tory promise to back a referendum on electoral reform. The Tories won that one through sheer cunning; by the time the referendum came around, the sting of the Lib Dems' betrayal was still sharp in the minds of the progressive end of the electorate, and the Lib Dems' electoral reforms were voted down two to one, mostly because people really wanted to give them a good kicking. And it looks like they still do; in the upcoming election, they are staring at a massive parliamentary wipe-out; indeed, the only thing protecting their moderately right-leaning leader, Nick Clegg, from losing his own seat (in the student-populated seat of Sheffield Hallam) is Tory voters in his electorate tactically backing him, presumably as he's a known quantity with whom they can do a deal.
The elephant in the room is, of course, what Charles Stross has termed the Scottish Political Singularity; in a nutshell, politics in Scotland has become detached from the rest of the United Kingdom in a way that looks unlikely to be reversed. This process began when Margaret Thatcher, in her characteristic measured wisdom, decided to use Scotland as a testbed for her unpopular and regressive poll tax; as a result, the Conservative Party (which, at its height, had enjoyed wide support north of the border, what with the Protestant work ethic and all that) declined to a desultory rump. In the past several parliaments, the Tories had merely one MP north of the border, which, as is widely reported, is one fewer than the number of giant pandas in Scotland. Of course, Labour made hay from this, packing their Blair-era cabinets with Scottish MPs, elected by the Tory-loathing descendants of Glaswegian shipworkers and Aberdonian oil riggers, safe in the knowledge that they could triangulate rightward as far as tactics demanded without losing support for at least a generation. But then, the independence referendum happened, and while the No side won comfortably, the sight of Labour joining with the Tories in vociferously opposing independence did it for them. If the polls are to be believed, Labour (or, as they're known in Scotland, the Red Tories) are facing all but electoral annihilation north of the border, and the Scottish National Party—once a single-issue pro-independence party, now the seemingly natural party of Scotland's own devolved government, promoting itself as a broad centre-left social-democratic party, with a few sops to religious conservatism—looks set to take an overwhelming majority of Scottish seats in Westminster. The result of this is that, even though the Tories and Lib Dems are set to fall short of a majority (or even the Tories, Lib Dems and the hard-right reactionary party UKIP, if the three could somehow stomach each other for long enough), Labour will also fall short, and the SNP look set to be kingmakers.
This is, of course, a massive problem for both major parties. The SNP have ruled out forming a coalition with the Tories, for obvious reasons, though have extended an offer of mutual support to Labour, suggesting that they could help Labour be bolder (i.e., move away from the Blairite centre-right and sharply to the left). Of course, the tabloids had a field day with the prospect of the Northern barbarians dictating policy, and the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, ruled out any sort of deal with the SNP, saying that if Labour cannot govern without them, there will not be a Labour government, full stop. The presumable tactical goal of this is to scare Scottish voters into flocking back into the Labour fold, in the hope that enough Labour MPs will be returned to get a majority. This is the sort of thing that the Americans call a “Hail Mary pass”; a desperate last-ditch attempt to snatch a highly improbable victory from the jaws of almost certain defeat.
What will happen if (as polls predict) there is a hung parliament, but Labour plus the SNP would have a majority, is uncertain. Miliband could stick to his word, fall on his sword, and let Cameron assemble a fractious minority government (attempting to get the handful of surviving Lib Dems and the triumphant UKIPpers singing from the same hymn sheet), having the luxury of toying with it from the opposition benches as a cat does with a dying mouse; the downside of this would be that the Tories would still be the government, and even if the government does fall long before the end of its five-year term, there's no guarantee of which way the next election would go (and the Tories, it must be said, have the advantage in campaign fund raising). Or he could swallow his words and do a deal with the SNP, undoubtedly coming up with some lawyerly rationalisation for why he is not actually doing a deal with the SNP but instead doing something entirely different. (Whether Labour and the SNP could come to an agreement is another matter; the SNP seem less likely to fold on their red-line issues, such as the scrapping of the Trident nuclear missile system, than the Lib Dems were; and, indeed, a noble defeat hastening the breakup of the United Kingdom may be what the SNP want.) Or the result could be the formerly unthinkable: a Conservative-Labour rainbow coalition, a “government of national unity” of a kind unheard of in peacetime, with everybody else (the rebellious Scots nationalists, the cranky English nationalists, the convalescing Lib Dems, and Brighton's Green MP, Caroline Lucas) forming a somewhat chaotic opposition. Such a government would have very little in the way of representation north of the border, and would probably do little to dampen down the still smouldering embers of the secessionist mood. (If the Tories deliver on their promise of a referendum on leaving the EU, all bets are off; Scotland favours EU membership a lot more strongly than England does.)
To add to this, there is another wildcard: Her Royal Highness Princess Charlotte Elizabeth Diana of Cambridge, Saviour Of The Union, also known as the newly-born Royal Baby. Announced in the weeks before the Scottish independence referendum, the Royal Baby, whilst still a mere zygote, may have saved the Kingdom (for now, at least); and now, whilst yet functionally little more than a digestive tract, there is the prospect that she may do the same for David Cameron's Prime Ministership. The theory goes that the groundswell of uncritical patriotism, taking the form of an acceptance of the deep, ineffable rightness of deference to an archaic, ceremonial system of nobility, should rub off to some extent on the patrician Cameron (who is, after all, Queen Elizabeth II's fifth cousin once removed); and if not, surely the omnipresent Union Jack bunting and spontaneous Royal Baby tea parties in every street, where everyone—the Morrises and MacLeods, the Khans and Kowalczyks—come together to sing God Save The Queen in unison, should take the edge off dissatisfaction with the government of the day by polling day. Or perhaps not; the Guardian's Zoe Williams thinks that the Royal Baby may have the opposite effect (by virtue of being a baby, rather than being royal).
The upshot of all this is: we live in interesting times, and it'll take a long time for the dust to settle. At this stage, it is not at all clear who will be Prime Minister after the next election.