Let's just do one election at a time
Viewers of the Daily Politics and readers of this blog will not be surprised by the headlines in today's papers that David Cameron would forego any deal with the Lib Dems and run a minority government -- should the Tories emerge on May 6th as the largest party but without an overall majority. We've been saying that for a couple of weeks now.
It's hardly academic, however, since all the polls are still firmly in hung parliament territory. Mr Cameron came out of last Thursday's debate and into the weekend with what I've called Wee Mo -- a little momentum which, if it had continued, could have put him into overall majority territory. But Wee Mo has petered out and the Tory leader has a mountain to climb in the final three days to push his support up into the late thirties that gives him that overall majority. At the moment a hung parliament with Tories the largest party is still the most likely outcome.
Things are also pretty daunting for Labour and the Lib Dems. Gordon Brown, whose resilience cannot be doubted, is still struggling to avoid coming a humiliating third: there is still probably a 50:50 chance that he will come third. Labour leaders I meet are already thinking of life after Brown and in opposition.
By the end of last week I would have put the odds higher -- but the Lib Dem bounce has lost some of its energy and Nick Clegg is struggling to hold on to the gains that first leaders' debate gave him. Mr Clegg says this is now a two-horse race between the Lib Dems and the Tories, but his party is unlikely to beat the Tories in share of the national vote and certainly will not end up with more seats than the Tories. At the moment the best he can hope for is to get as close to 100 seats as he can and beat Labour into third place in share of the vote, which would be a powerful symbolism.
Of course Labour and the Lib Dems could still form some kind of post-election pact to govern after the election and constitutionally Mr Brown is entitled to try to form one, even if he comes third in votes. But if the Lib Dems really are ruling out dealing with Mr Brown (and I think they still are but I confess to some confusion) then that would be the end of the matter. Labour and the Lib Dems then can't just hand the leadership over to somebody else to try. If Mr Brown reports to the Queen that he is unable to form a government then constitutionally she then has to invite the leader of the largest party (in this case the Tories) to make the attempt.
Some reality is beginning to dawn on the Lib Dems. If Mr Cameron does emerge with the most seats and forms a minority government then the election of 2010 will not be quite the game-changer the Lib Dems have supposed -- because Mr Cameron will not agree to a change in the voting system. How a minority Tory government would fare -- or how long it would last -- is another matter. The Lib Dems could soon be having another bite at the cherry. But let's just do one election at a time.