For the first time since the Second World War, Britain has been governed during this Parliament by a coalition of parties - consisting of the Conservative Party, which hold 302 seats in the current Parliament and are led by the Prime Minister, David Cameron, and the Liberal Democrats, who have 56 seats and are led by the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg. This government will not fight the forthcoming election on May 7 as a coalition - the parties are rather ostentatiously going their separate ways, and have been doing so even while in government for some time.
Indeed, splits within that coalition have given rise to the biggest single problem the Conservative Party now face in their attempt to retain government (and, preferably, govern alone). After five long years in power, because the Lib Dems have blocked it, the Tories have failed despite the powers of incumbency to deliver overdue changes to the constituency boundaries on which elections are fought.
This may sound like an arcane point, but as every gerrymanderer knows, it isn't - it's vital to the outcome at the polls. Labour presently have a baked-in advantage in our constituencies, reliably winning smaller seats in the north of England while the Tories fruitlessly amass piles of votes in more populous southern seats which contribute nothing extra to their standing in the House of Commons. Consider this: At the 2005 General Election, Labour won with a 3-point lead over the Tories - they took government with a majority of more than 60 seats. Five years later, in 2010, the Conservatives had 7-point lead over Labour, but did not gain an overall majority at all.
As the latest polls will show you, the two main parties are presently polling neck-and-neck in national terms. This really means that Labour are ahead. By how much is unclear, as there are so many intangible factors to be considered on a seat-by-seat basis - candidate preference, willingness to vote for a minor party, and so forth - but they're ahead.
This is enhanced by the coinciding change in fortunes of the minor parties. The rise of the eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party splits the right, harming the Tories. The remarkable decline of the Lib Dems (for reasons brilliantly explained by their former head of press here) splits the left, helping Labour. The Lib Dems face ignominious defeat at the polls nationwide, losing perhaps over half their seats. On the other hand, having won the European elections last year, UKIP are presently polling at somewhere between 12 and 14 percent. As they draw their support predominantly from those who might otherwise vote Tory, anything north of 4 or 5 percent significantly impairs the prospects of Conservative success in marginal seats.
Taken together, these points are the challenges for Cameron's Conservatives in May. On the other hand, there are two major advantages in their favor: First, the economy is steadily improving. For an important slice of the population, quality of life has not improved for a very considerable time, producing a disconnect for some between economic numbers and their own sense of how things are going. Yet the country as a whole increasingly feels like things are "on the up" - and this is traditionally the most important electoral consideration in the United Kingdom, as elsewhere. The Conservatives will repeat their messaging about their Long Term Economic Plan, the driving down of the deficit, and the addition of 1,000 jobs per day since they took office, right up until polling day.
Secondly, Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour Party and putative future prime minister, consistently underwhelms with the public. Cameron is consistently preferred as a leader in head-to-head polling - and a desire to avoid disturbing that clarity may explain the apparent reluctance of the Tory campaign team to have head-to-head leader debates. Predictably, these are therefore the twin themes of the Tory campaign. There's a minor party point that harms Labour, too - north of the border, a resurgent Scottish Nationalist Party, or SNP, has rebounded remarkably from its recent defeat in the independence referendum and looks set to capture a swathe of Labour (and Lib Dem) seats. This doesn't help the Tories much though, as an alliance between the right-of-center Conservatives and solid-left SNP just won't happen - although contrary to metropolitan London speculation, their fantastically bitter rivalry with Labour means a Lab/SNP coalition is pretty unlikely, too.
Taken together, all this means that the election will be close, and it is unlikely indeed that a single party will form a majority government in its own right. Another coalition of some form is very likely. Ironically, despite their forthcoming shellacking, it is likely in my view that so long as the electoral mathematics add up, the chastened Liberal Democrats will remain the most palatable (or least unpalatable) choice as a partner for both of the major parties. Clegg's party has already demonstrated that they can be a "party of government" rather than just a party of protest. Therefore, in an election which everybody loses - Labour not improving their vote, but gaining seats; the Tories getting more votes, but fewer seats; UKIP getting a pile of votes distributed across the whole country, and almost no seats as a result; the Lib Dems getting savaged, but still having more seats than UKIP - the perverse outcome may well be that the party which loses worst gets to stay in government with a new coalition partner.
Alex Deane is Managing Director and Head of Public Affairs at FTI Consulting. He is a former aide to David Cameron.