It was supposed to be easy for David Cameron.
Just weeks ago, the Conservative Party leader was far ahead in the polls, and the UK was expecting the old order to continue – Labour to Tory (Conservative), Tory to Labour and back again.
But that was before the world’s oldest continuous democracy got a taste of TV debates. The electorate soon woke up to the fact that there were more than two parties.
The Liberal Democrats have surged since their fresh-faced leader Nick Clegg capitalized on dissatisfaction with the political process in the wake of the expenses scandal.
“I agree with Nick” – But at the ballot box, too?
“I agree with Nick” was the catchphrase that echoed after the first debate. And despite the outrage from smaller parties at not being included in the format (not least the Scottish Nationalists) the debates have reinvigorated a stale political process.
They’ve also led to debate over the UK’s unfair ‘first past the post’ political process which is used in place of proportional representation.
The Lib Dems have long been disadvantaged by a system which can lead to far fewer seats than the actual number of votes might suggest – and the big two parties have never been keen on changing it.
But the highs for the Lib Dems a week or so ago have fallen back somewhat, and Cameron is again out in front with a fair lead. Polls vary, with some suggesting he could win outright. But the party knows not to be complacent; most polls still suggest that a coalition may be necessary.
The UK could get its first hung parliament since 1974.
It’s the economy
It’s been a campaign that was largely fought on the economy. Gordon Brown is claiming he steered Britain from the abyss – even if he was chancellor (treasurer) while steering the country in.
But he and the others are all playing the austerity card – even if Labour are focusing more acutely on exactly what services they say the Tories would rip from the public.
With the UK’s budget deficit set to hit 12 per cent (Greece is currently on 9.3 per cent), it’s easy to see why.
But a recent study from the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies found that the cuts that needed to be made to spending – which the parties have committed to – have not even started to be addressed. The Lib Dems, the institute says, have set out 26 per cent, the Tories 18 per cent, and Labour a measly 13 per cent.
With an approach to avoiding economic detail that borders on collision, the more interesting issue for analysts has been the wrangling that could come after the votes have been counted.
Voters in the dark
The problem for the voters – many of whom do not want another term of Gordon Brown and Labour, in power since 1997, nor convinced by the ‘new’ centrist Conservative Party – is that the leaders have played their cards very close as to who would be prepared to work with who in the case of a hung parliament.
Most polls suggest David Cameron will not win an outright majority. If this happens, he can’t govern alone. But the Lib Dems, keen on collecting a progressive and young chunk of the vote, have not been prepared to say they would work with the Conservatives.
In fact, they’ve come much closer to saying they wouldn’t work with Labour –despite both parties finding themselves – for the most part – on the centre left. How unfair, they say, that a coalition might be formed with a party that could come third – Labour – and still manage to hold on to power.
Either way, what the political landscape could look out in a week, or two weeks, or even a month, no one is prepared to say. Would a cabinet of the best and brightest talents from more than party transpire? Do the country’s leaders have it in them?
And so tactical voting enters the fray. Even Labour Ministers have urged their supporters to vote for the philosophically- more in tune Lib Dems in marginal seats, simply to keep the Tories out.
The Lib Dems have scoffed at such suggestions – they want to get second place outright – something no one expected just weeks ago.
Labour wants to avoid coming last. Gordon Brown, long in the shadow of Tony Blair, has never fought an election. Coming third would be a humiliation.
And David Cameron simply wants to win enough seats to govern with his MPs alone.
Working with the Lib Dems could be hugely fractious for his party, which has taken years to come around to the centre ground . The party still contains plenty of skeptics of man-made climate change, for instance. And don’t even mention European integration.
Late Thursday afternoon Australian time, the polls opened. Who’ll be in power in the next couple of days, or the next couple of weeks, no one is quite prepared to call just yet.