Though the polls closed here in Britain more than 12 hours ago we still don’t know who won. There are still seats where the results haven’t come in, but the latest results point to a hung parliament, with no party commanding an absolute majority in the new house of commons. I don’t know what the no-smoking equivalent of a smoke-filled room is, but that’s what the next few days promise, as all three parties jostle not just for a share of power, but for a political position that won’t blow up in their faces as whoever occupies Number 10 Downing Street imposes the austerity measures that all three party leaders deliberately avoided discussing during the campaign.
While we wait for those negotiations to emerge, it is at least possible to specify who lost last night:
1. David Cameron. For most of the past year the Conservative Party hovered at around 40 per cent in the opinion polls, promising an easy walk to a commanding majority in government. Instead the Tories are heading for about 36 per cent—a five per cent swing from Labour since the last election, but not enough to be entitled to govern. Under Britain’s first-past-the-post system, winning a plurality may give you a “moral right to govern”—as Rupert Murdoch’s Sun claimed this morning. But in Britain a moral right and 20 pence will buy you a copy of the Sun. The Tories campaigned as the only major party in favor of keeping the current system, and under that system the sitting Prime Minister has the right to try and form a majority first. Only when he resigns and can’t form a majority does power potentially pass to the opposition.
2. Gordon Brown. Though he has the legal and political right to try to cling on to power, Gordon Brown’s party were the biggest losers last night, with their share of the votes declining by over 6 per cent—two thirds of which went to the Tories—while losing at least 87 seats in Westminster, more than a quarter of their 2005 total. Labour’s deathbed conversion to electoral reform would provide a plausible rationale for a coalition with the Liberal Democrats if Labour’s own poor performance didn’t tarnish, perhaps fatally, the legitimacy of any such deal. Which brings us to…
3. Nick Clegg. When the polls closed last night and the exit poll results indicated the Liberal Democrats actually winning fewer seats than in 2005, your correspondent was inclined to doubt the poll. But the grey light of dawn has indeed revealed a net loss of Lib Dem seats (though a very slight increase in the share of the vote). Explanations for why Cleggmania, though a media earthquake, turned out to be little more than a political hiccup, will have to wait. Especially since the Lib Dems—aided by a shambolic polling process that saw hundreds of voters turned away from polls across the country—do seem to have actually won the argument about the need for a fairer electoral system. But it is worth saying that not the least perverse aspect of the current system is that although he and his party did far worse than they either hoped or expected, Nick Clegg still woke up this morning holding the balance of British politics in his hand. How will he use it? This morning he reiterated his view that the party with the most votes and the most seats “has the first right to seek to govern, either on its own or by reaching out to other parties.” But to seek is not to find, and though Clegg may feel he holds a poisoned chalice, he hasn’t got rid of it quite yet.