UK election campaign: the most likely outcome is on nobody's lips

Nick Clegg is in shirtsleeves down the back of the Lib Dem yellow bus as it swings through Devon.

The tie has been on. The tie has been off. Now the sleeves are rolled up for the business of telling the press his party will flinch from any coalition with Ukip or the Scots.

“They are not political parties in the conventional sense,” he explains. “They are movements whose sole aim is one thing: in the case of Ukip to pull Britain out of the European Union, in the case of the SNP to pull Scotland out of the UK. Everything else is subservient to that.”

Rather grandly, he says he will have nothing to do with either of them. “We won’t be part of a government basically on life support and surviving at the behest of a party that wants to pull our country apart.”

Clegg’s disdain is remarkable. He resists any attempts to clarify what he means by “life support” and “behest”. The Lib Dem leader is chipper and vague in equal measure. Would his party boycott a coalition even if there is no more than an informal understanding with the Scots?

“I think,” he replies, “this whole thing collapses into a surreal debate about how other parties may vote.” Well, exactly.

For a foreigner watching all this, there seems to be an air of unreality about the Scottish question in Westminster, a kind of Highland mist that obscures the ordinary rules of politics. All the usual disclaimers must be made: anything can happen between now and next Thursday. But for months the polls have been saying only one thing: that Scotland will decide who governs Britain.

Yet that is not the narrative. Instead we read about the fear campaign being run by the Lib Dems and the Conservatives. High hopes were held for it but it is clearly falling short. The SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon is not terrifying the English. Indeed, a TNS BMRB poll in the Herald Scotland yesterday declared her the most popular politician in Britain.

They adore Sturgeon in Scotland; they love her in Wales and the West Country; and across the UK, north and south of the border, her net approval rating is +33.

Yet there still seems only a rather half-hearted acknowledgement that the Scots heading for Westminster after 7 May will have much of a role at all in deciding government. Clegg, David Cameron and Ed Miliband and much of the press talk as if the union is already broken and that the 50 or so MPs about to appear from the north will be interlopers in Westminster.

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Let ’em in the door and all is lost, is the cry. But even if they want to scuttle the nuclear fleet and do the United Kingdom permanent damage, they have to be let in. Their numbers will be there to be counted. For now they are British MPs elected by British voters to the British parliament.

And unless the Conservatives win a dozen or so more seats than pollsters predict, the Scots will install Labour in No 10.

Surely, that’s the story of the campaign? One of the strangest things for an interloper from the far side of the world is the dreamlike quality of so much of the commentary on the campaign, dreamlike because the most likely outcome has so little traction.

Of course, the mandate of Scotland is no secret. The numbers are there. It’s given serious attention. But so much of the time, the focus drifts elsewhere: to the scare campaigns; to Clegg’s deliberately ambiguous stance on the Scots; and to Miliband’s claim on The Andrew Marr Show – surely impossible to believe – that he won’t do deals with the SNP to become prime minister.

This is no time to be coy about Westminster. You exported it to the world. We know the rules. America made a terrible mistake right at the beginning by ditching Westminster along with the crown. Westminster works. And at times like these it works by doing deals, by building coalitions.

Cameron is lost if Scotland is part of any deal. His way of keeping Scotland out is to come up with a fresh constitutional ground rule that any coalition not built around the biggest party – ie the Conservatives – will be illegitimate.

Conservatives have a flair for making up constitutions on the run. They pose as the great defenders of the fundamental rules but here, in America and Australia, they are the radicals. In ways Labour never can, Conservatives will try it on.

Cameron’s new rule to deal his party into any government has been rubbished as law. But destruction of the last Labor government in Australia shows what a potent political trap is waiting here, and how grim Westminster might be in the years ahead if Scotland and Labour rule.

Julia Gillard fell short of a majority in the 2010 elections and put together a coalition with one Green and three independents. It was a constitutionally-impeccable Westminster exercise that allowed her to pass a heavy programme of legislation with hardly a lost vote in three years.

But all that time she faced attacks from the conservative leader of the opposition, Tony Abbott, for running a “minority government”. The fine points of Westminster didn’t matter a damn to him. His relentless attacks undermined her. By the end, Gillard was widely regarded as illegitimate. First she lost the leadership and then Labor lost the 2013 election.

Would this be another of the ruthless strategies imported from Australia for the Conservative cause in this country?

Miliband told a crowd of Labour faithful, and the press, in the elegant and airless hall of the Royal Institute of British Architects on Wednesday: “This election could come down to a few hundred votes in a few dozen constituencies.” And it may.

The leaders down south are all urging us to doubt the polls, to look to little shifts, to listen to word from the constituencies, not to prejudge where Britain will be by midnight next Thursday. They are right. It is too soon.

But as things stand now, no amount of disdain, regret and constitutional obfuscation is going to stop Scotland upending the politics of Britain. And no matter what Clegg and Cameron and Miliband are saying, they will do the deals they have to do – even with the devil from the north – to win power.

Let’s face it: this is how Westminster works.

Powered by article was written by David Marr, for The Guardian on Wednesday 29th April 2015 22.39 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010