I don’t think that the Lib Dems have any serious alternative to signing up to Cameron’s not particularly generous offer and getting the best deal they can in terms of policy concessions. But they have a weak hand: they couldn’t justify climbing into bed with Gordon after Labour has won under 30% of the vote, nearly as awful as 1983, and lost 91 seats. The astonishing thing is that the Tories won only 36.1% of the vote when they started with so many huge advantages: and they can’t explain that away by reference to the ‘unfair’ distribution of voter numbers among constituencies.
I had consistently and wrongly predicted an overall Tory majority, which seemed inevitable after 13 years of Labour, with a deeply unpopular Labour leader, the MPs’ expenses scandal, two unpopular wars, all flights grounded for days on end, and above all the deepest recession for a generation, all inevitably blamed on the Labour government, however unfairly in some cases. I’m still at a loss to know why Cameron failed to get his overall majority when circumstances were so uniformly favourable for the Tories. The Lib Dem share of the vote (a mere 23%, with only one more result due today) is less than 1 point better than they won in 2005, before Nick Clegg had been invented.
So I see no reason to change my revised forecast of this morning: Cameron leading a minority Conservative government with the provisional acquiescence of the Lib Dems following loose agreement on a number of policy promises. The mechanics of achieving this won’t be at all straightforward if Gordon Brown insists on exercising his right to meet parliament as prime minister seeking a confidence vote on May 25th on a Queen’s Speech full of seductive goodies for the Lib Dems and for the other left-of-centre parties. I suspect, however, that he will be prevented from dragging things out in this way by an appeal to his patriotism: the country can’t afford to prolong the uncertainty and to delay urgent decisions on the economy for another 18 days. Brown will also be under pressure from younger Labour ministers not to discredit the party in this way for fear of yet more punishment by the electorate in the next election, which could well take place within the year.