A constitutional upheaval for May 7

Five overnight polls show the Lib Dem surge holding and Labour trailing. There must be an underlying fear that Labour won’t recover if the Clegg bubble subsides. But on a uniform trend the ICM poll in the Guardian reads out like this.

Party % seats
Cons 33 245
Lab 28 275
Lib Dem30 99

So Labour could win the most seats although coming third in share of the vote. That’s first past the post for you.

On this trend a political earthquake is scheduled for the few days after May6. With around 100 Lib Dem seats only a coalition and not a minority government could produce stable government says YouGov boss Peter Kellner. Not necessarily, say others (including me).. With a coalition, we could end up with a deal voted for by absolutely nobody – well out of tune with the new popular will. Declared terms for supporting a minority government would be more honest and transparent.

Which party is better placed to form a government, the party with the most votes or the most seats? It has to be the most seats – governments are in power because of MPs’ votes, even though votes rather than seats lie at the heart of Lib Dem arguments for voting change. But only the realpolitik of MPs’votes – can bring change about.

But the size of voting share gives tremendous moral authority for change along with one other factor: change from the last election . Taking all three factors together, the Conservatives would be a strong position in any of the current variables, having climbed a mountain to get so far. The odds are against Labour.

With the balance of power, the Lib Dems hold the initiative. Negotiations to form a stable government involve much more than a numbers game. Given the public’s low opinion of politics generally and the hopes now riding on Nick Clegg, moral advantage matters greatly. I would say that Tory moral advantage rules out any deal with Labour automatically if they fail to win a majority over Conservatives. Lib Dem supporters could make trouble over this. Unsurprisingly as major Lib Dem policies are much closer to Labour’s, a ComRes poll in the Independent shows them preferring Brown to Cameron by a margin of 15%. Clegg would have to insist that the will of the electors was paramount.

From being an item high on the Lib Dem wish list, electoral reform for the Commons to create a three party system becomes a deal breaker. (Having already won electoral reform from Labour they have no more to gain from them there.)

The Conservatives would have to pay the higher price of abandoning first-past-the post in favour of AV or PR STV, a bitter pill to swallow but one actually in their own interests and which could be combined with their shared aim of a smaller Commons. A referendum Bill on electoral reform wouid be among first business in the new Commons. An elected Lords might be added.

The emergency budget is the other big ticket item. A match could be found between St Vince’s honest austerity and Osborne’s cautious cuts.

Under a Conservative minority government it would be understood that Labour and the Lib Dems could combine to defeat Tory favourites like as a cap on immigration and a referendum on future EU treaties without the government collapsing.

Finally the Conservatives should be required to join the club and concede fixed term parliaments, thus creating stability for up to five years and the prospect of minority or coalition government indefinitely. For good measure the Lib Dems should also insist on the reform of party funding while they’re about it. In any plausible scenario the pressure is great on all parties but especially the Lib Dems. If they dither over setting terms, their bubble could burst as quickly as it popped up. If the negotations drag on, the markets could go crazy. Ideally scenario planning if not actual secret negotiations through proxies, should be well under way now – very deep throat stuff to avoid being rumbled by the media.

In the wake of MPs’ expenses scandal, the British public, who have been more disenchanted with politics than ever due to the expenses scandal, may have suddenly stumbled upon a surprising route to political reform. Unless the Clegg bubble subsides altogether, a new era of politics is almost upon us, whichever party forms the next government.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

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