Britain's Watershed Moment Approaches
AP Photo/Stefan Rousseau, Pool
Britain's Watershed Moment Approaches
AP Photo/Stefan Rousseau, Pool
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With less than three weeks to go until polling day, the overall picture remains unchanged in the UK general election campaign. The two main parties are polling neck-and-neck nationally, which translates to a small advantage for the opposition Labour Party given the long-unchanged and outdated constituency boundaries on which the election will be fought. A TV debate for party leaders - which, unlike the earlier contest, was not attended by the prime minister - saw Labour leader Ed Miliband emerge reasonably well, with the Scottish National Party's Nicola Sturgeon continuing to shine. (While most UK voters can't cast a ballot for Sturgeon, much of the country that can is dead-set on doing so.)
But below the deadlock in headline polling, things are moving fast. Miliband - judging, perhaps rightly, that he's doing well enough that he won't require their support in the next Parliament - has announced that he won't join an "anti-Tory coalition" with the SNP, explaining that he will not put the future of the United Kingdom in jeopardy. Here an insight in the British political lexicon is perhaps enlightening: The Conservatives, the party to which your correspondent belongs, are currently the largest party in the House of Commons. The party evolved in the early 1800s from an earlier party labeled "the Tories" by opponents. The Irish word for "robbers," Tories is a term which has stuck with the party ever since.

A more likely coalition would pair Labour with the Liberal Democrats, the minority party in the coalition that governed the last Parliament with the Conservatives; but Miliband will not commit to that, either. Prime Minister David Cameron has said that he would "feel a failure" if the Conservatives don't acquire an overall majority in the Commons - a result that looks very unlikely. Boris Johnson, the high-profile, charismatic mayor of London and the object of frequent speculation as a future leader, is conspicuous for his absence from the Tory campaign trail and his almost ostentatious lack of association with it. Polling shows that the SNP's rise north of the Tweed means that Labour's strong leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, may lose his seat.
If the election delivers a hung parliament as expected, a formal multiparty coalition is not the only path toward forming a government. To move into 10 Downing Street and staff the offices of state, a government is only required to have "the confidence of the House of Commons" - which in practice simply means defeating a vote of no confidence. This requires Members of Parliament to vote with the ruling party on one issue alone. So the largest party might try to run a minority government.

Instead of compromising and splitting power with potentially unreliable allies who would certainly dilute their ideological focus and drive, the ruling party in this way would at least be able to act decisively, occupying all ministries with its own MPs, and then wrangling votes from other parties to pass bills into law - through informal coalitions, ad-hoc deals, on a case-by-case basis, or a mix of all such measures.
The tricky bit - for the British Constitution and people, if not for the eventual ruling party - is that we now have fixed-term parliaments. A minority government, once appointed, might fail sooner or later, but without the ability to call an election, that failure would only be met with more failure. Such a government might limp along for months before being put out of its misery, perhaps even being forced to vote against itself or at least abstain from any vote of confidence about its ability.

Despite also ruling through fixed-term governments, the American system has avoided these troubles. But then again, despite occasional intruders and interlopers, America's remains a binary system, with two parties hoovering up most of the votes. In the United Kingdom, we have at least six significant parties contesting the 2015 election. In fact, this may be regarded in future years as the watershed moment in which Britain moved from what might be called the Anglo political system toward a more frankly European model.
Such are the things we think about as this election drags on - at least, those of us who are still interested. The fixed term means that this election date has been known and anticipated, and campaigned toward for years. The remaining weeks won't be an eternity - but for much of the election-fatigued British electorate, they'll feel like it.