The votes have not even been cast, let alone counted, but the political class is already engaged in the aftermath. Leading figures from all the major parties are preparing for the political earthquake that will strike the country on May 7. The more far-sighted know that things will never be the same again.
For even if either David Cameron or Ed Miliband manages to strike a “deal” that makes one of them Prime Minister, they know that the next administration will be a fragile creature, living from vote to vote and at the mercy of the slightest external shock. Indeed, as I wrote the other day, it may be impossible for the Conservatives or Labour to form a government, making a second election essential to try to break the impasse.
Cameron needs about 290 seats to stand a chance of carrying on. Miliband needs around 270 to have a realistic chance of becoming PM. At 290, 25 surviving Lib Dems and 10 DUP just about get Cameron over the 323 seat line. At 270, Miliband needs the tacit support of 50 Scots Nats and assorted other minor parties or the Ulstermen to make it to Downing Street. Equally, there are slightly lower seat tallies for the two big parties at which no one can govern with any degree of stability.
Monday brought two straws in this wind. The Financial Times reported that Cameron and Clegg are ready to move quickly to form another coalition. And Lib Dem peer, Lord Scriven rather undermined Cameron’s bold predictions of securing just another 23 seats to form an overall majority. Cameron has told Clegg privately that he knows he cannot win outright, Scriven unhelpfully tweeted.
The truth is that at this stage in the game, professional politicians are thinking about tomorrow. Will I hold my seat? Will I be offered a frontbench post again? Will the leader survive? Who might take over? Should I start sucking up to the people who might take over? Does Bloggs like me? Didn’t I snub his wife at that cocktail party 5 years ago? Oh Dear.
And so, as uncertainty mounts, so do the machinations underpinning the scramble for power.
Of course, there is another kind of post-mortem, but not one that quite so many politicians are ready or able to play. What went wrong, especially for the Tories? Why have the Conservatives failed to win an election that should have been theirs for the taking? They had cleared up an economic mess of apocalyptic proportions left by their Labour predecessors, they had created a jobs miracle, they had protected spending on two sacred cows – the NHS and education, they had made successful reforms to welfare and schools, they had a leader who if not loved was respected, they had fought a competent campaign, much more disciplined than 2010.
And yet they had been overshadowed by a politician of the Right in Nigel Farage and of the Left in Nicola Sturgeon. And they had failed to whip an inexperienced, gauche, sub-Marxist Hampstead intellectual in Ed Miliband.
After the 2010 election failure, the Tories had no time to think about what had gone wrong before they were bounced into coalition with the Lib Dems. After that the lure of the government car, the red carpet, and the retinues of Whitehall flunkies proved too enticing for anyone to bother much about the reading the entrails of defeat.
This time, if Cameron falls short of the Downing Street threshold – and even if he doesn’t – a period of reflection on the part of the Tory Party would be in order.