If the opinion polls are anywhere near correct, it seems we will be getting two general elections this year. I will explain why below.
In a parliament of 650 MPs, the magic number for a theoretical majority of one seat is 326 seats. In practise, this is reduced to 323 seats as the 5 Sinn Fein MPs refuse (not surprisingly) to swear allegiance to the Queen and cannot take their seats in parliament as a result.
To last a 'full' parliament of 5 years, it is estimated a 20 seat majority or 333 seats is the minimum required as around 10 governing party seats tend to come available due to deaths and retirements. These by-elections can be easily lost when in government. I suspect a 20 seat majority is also the minimum to take account of rebellious mavericks in either party - in Labour's case the number of rebels is usually even higher. There are also 4 speakers/deputies who by convention do not vote - 2 Labour and 2 Tory.
The current make-up of parliament (allocating notional, independent, suspended etc to previous party alignment) is LAB 351, CON 197, LIB 63, OTH 28. So the Tories have a lot to do.
UK Polling Report currently think the Tories will be around 20 seats short of a majority - i.e. will win around 310 seats, with Labour on 260, Libs 50 and Others 30 (mainly NI, Scots, Welsh Nats). So the Tories are expected to gain around 110 seats on this prediction, Labour lose 90 and Libs lose 15.
Ladbrokes think the Tories will get a working majority of around 20 seats, i.e will win around 335 seats, Labour on 225, Libs 55, Others 35. TORY +130, LAB -125, LIB -10. (Incidently, they also give odds on for a Green win in Pavilion and think only 2 independents will make it to parliament - sorry Esther!)
UK polling (YouGov) base their prediction on an agglomeration of the latest polls and what is called a 'universal national swing'. This has its limitations. It is a useful approximation of what is happening but has an inevitable time lag built in and ignores what is happening locally and crucially in the marginals - which are the only seats that actually make a difference to the result. It also takes no account of the effect of external factors - shy Tories still exist who do not admit their preference to pollsters, the effect of media (mainly press) bias over an electoral campaign and the available party advertising spend - all of which favour the Tories.
Ladbrokes base their odds on their profit margins and include ALL factors - for this reason I trust Ladbrokes guess more than UK polling.
But, after saying that, to gain 130 seats from the 150 or so that matter is a big ask for the Tories. It would be a turnover election to rival 1997 when Blair came to power on an unprecedented wave of enthusiasm. The Tories are just not that liked and they rely heavily on Labour's huge unpopularity bolstered by the Tory press. So I doubt they will get 335 seats - maybe 325 though. In a future post, I will look more closely at these 'marginal' seats.
Despite what the media will have us believe, it seems pretty impossible for Labour to get back into government with or without a coalition with the Lib Dems. To have any chance of forming a coalition, Labour need to win at least 270 seats and no recent opinion poll has put them within 1% of the Tories which is where they need to be to achieve this.
So the most likely scenario is the Tories with too small a majority to govern for long or to have to rely on Ulster Unionists and Liberals to prop them up. This probably explains the LIb Dems coded signals to the Tories on policy. The Lib Dem leadership know that despite their members leaning left, they are almost certainly only going to get into government by leaning right. The Lib Dems, if they stand for anything at all, should stand for electoral reform. But by leaning towards the Tories they have no chance of getting that one singly important policy.
The Tories will not play ball with coalition politics - they are ideologically opposed - I suspect they will give no ground to the Liberals and call a general election as soon as is propitious. It is in the Tory interest to paint any hung parliament as disastrous for Britain and hope that Labour leadership strife will finish off any Labour in opposition challenge. Indeed coalitions are more difficult under first-past-the-post because, just as one party government is unrepresentative of what people voted for, so is any coalition government.
The Tories might get 37% of the vote on a poor turnout yet still get near to 50% of the seats, this will skew any coalition away from what people voted for. While a majority of seats can be won on such a low percentage of the vote, there is no incentive for coalitions to stay together for a full parliament under our first-past-the-post system. Under PR, parties are forced to work closer together because they know that the GE will always mean a coalition partner is needed for parties with less than 50% of the vote.
The most I could see a Tory/Lib Dem government lasting is around 18 months and it could fall apart in as little as 6 months or even less. Hence why I suspect another general election in the Autumn. The Tories might offer some key posts - Ashdown for Afghanistan, Nick Clegg for Home Affairs, and maybe a role for Cable - but NOT the chancellorship - that is too important for the Tories with their cuts agenda.
Of the four Lib Dem demands on policy (pupil premium, green economy, fair taxes, fair votes)- the Tories can offer two policies, the pupil premium which is their policy anyway and the 'green economy' which is suitably vague and fits in with Tory rebranding. On fairer taxes and fairer votes - the two policies that really matter, the Tories will give nothing but lip service - maybe some sort of commission set up to look into both, but nothing of any substance. And of course the Tories would look for the first opportunity to call an election and get out of such restrictions.
If the Tories scrape a small majority or get within single figures of a majority the first thing they will do is enlarge the constituency boundaries so that any election that follows in the Autumn will give them a majority on the 37% vote share they can manage to get. Coupled with their changes to media impartiality this could mean the May 2010 election being the last one to be held under any semblence of democratic fairness. If the Tories do fall 30 seats short then hopefully the Lib Dems will stop them in this gerrymander.
Then we could be heading for the perpetual hung parliaments they get in Canada under our first-past-the-post system - a 'well hung' system that has dragged reluctant Canadians to the polls 5 times in 8 years. Ironically only a PR system could prevent this instability by providing coalition government that truly represents what people voted for and providing a framework for parties to work together to deliver real improvements rather than the present destructive adversarial back biting.