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Sunday 9 May 2010

Whoever ends up in bed together, the party's truly over

So what now for British politics? All bets are off, because the only certainty is that grim times lie ahead, says Ruth Dudley Edwards

AM I a bona-fide soothsayer?

Well, I did bet a fiver that the Conservatives would have a parliamentary majority and therefore -- even though they're only the biggest party andGordon Brown still squats in Downing Street -- I think I'm morally entitled to take it off the person who predicted that Labour would shave it. And what's more, I did tell several people that Peter Robinson might lose East Belfast -- mainly because I had watched open-mouthed his 25-minute bad-tempered defence on television of a questionable property deal. Sadly, in the midst of the jeers, I failed to insist on a formal bet.

On Thursday night, while most guests at the election party chatted and caroused, I spent more than eight hours gazing at BBC TV and complaining about its dreadful, gimmick-ridden coverage. At 6.10am on Friday, I had a moment of wisdom and told the last two watching that I was now going to bed, as it might take days to resolve this bizarre election. An even greater moment of wisdom came later that day as I cleared up. Instead of throwing out the streamers, leaders' masks, spare balloons and other decorative paraphernalia, I stored them all carefully away for the election that is likely to happen later this year, although I expect I'll have to purchase a substitute for Gordon Brown's mask.

This has been what one commentator called the Mick Jagger election: no one got satisfaction. The Conservatives won 36.5 per cent of the vote, Labour 29.2 per cent and the Liberal Democrats 23 per cent, bringing them respectively 306, 258 and 57 seats and producing a hung parliament. The British public has never cared much about electoral reform, but the Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg had taken their fancy -- even if not many of their votes -- and there is a sense that the present system is too unfair to stay as it is.

Then there were the scenes of frustrated members of the public being denied the opportunity to vote because the polling stations were understaffed and accusations of widespread fraud in a badly supervised postal-voting system. ('UK -- The new Florida or the new Zimbabwe' was the text I received in the middle of the night from a mordant Dublin friend.)

So what now for politics in the UK?

Clegg is spending his weekend weighing up the offers from Labour and Conservatives to help them rule. Brown is so desperate for a deal (a warning voice from within his circle allegedly said, "We don't want to end up like the drunk girl at a party trying to get off with Clegg. You usually see her later in the car park being sick.") that even though he never fancied the Lib Dems he's now offering marriage. But Clegg knows he would be an abusive partner.

David Cameron has made it clear that while he's up for it, he is no trollop and would expect to be treated like a lady. And although Clegg knows he'll lose face if he goes home alone, he's afraid of contracting a disease if he has intimate involvement with either of them, and is searching for prophylactics.

If Labour can't do a deal, they'll be out of office, Brown will go, the civil war between socialists (Ed Balls and the Unite trade union) and Peter Mandelson's metropolitans will erupt and will leave so many dead that the party may never recover. The Conservatives would like to be in power, but they know the economy is in a dreadful state, recognise a poisoned chalice when they see one and see the attractions of leaving Brown to clear up his own mess while they prepare for the election that would almost come about within a year.

Few politicians would take such a risk, but David Cameron is exceptional. Vernon Bogdanor, professor of government at Oxford University, who often disagrees with Cameron on policy, considers him one of the ablest students he ever taught, and like Cameron's intimates, sees him as a resilient pragmatist with an extraordinary ability to remain cool under pressure.

Clegg is being sorely tested this weekend. Briefly the Golden Boy of the election, he and his party are eaten up with disappointment at their poor showing in the polls. If he doesn't accept some deal to make it possible for some government to govern, the electorate will take it out on him, and his party's best-ever chance of electoral reform will be lost. Yet his party hate the Tories, a deal with Labour will be seen as a losers' alliance and he knows how damaging it would be to be complicit in imposing the savage public-spending cuts that the markets will demand. And whatever deal is struck may not placate the markets for long.

I'm placing no bets and saying no sooths. The only certainty is that grim times lie ahead.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards