On Thursday, the British electorate was asked to make its choice of who would run the country for the next four years. They gave a muffled and incoherent answer. The leaders of the Conservatives, Labor, and the Liberal Democrats now have to sort out the mess — with a behind-the-scenes assist from the queen. (Because of the so-called royal prerogative, this is her moment too.) Arriving at a viable government is likely to involve — horrors! — a considerable amount of wheeling and dealing, much despised by Westminster politicians as un-British and “Continental.”
In addition to forcing British politicians to behave like Italians, the outcome leaves no clear winner, but several losers. The obvious one, of course, is Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his Labor Party. Results are still being sifted through, and Brown may still attempt to form a Liberal Democrat-supported government. But Labor will have lost more than 170 seats. In other words, 170 Labor parliamentarians across the country were sacked by the British public, in a clear message of widespread discontent with the government’s performance.
When the dust settles, the Tories will have gained around 120 seats, almost doubling their 2005 parliamentary strength. As for what good that gain is if Cameron can’t form a government, that’s another story. But the result buries forever the Blair-Brown “New Labor,” left-of-center experiment. When Brown’s party carries out its post-mortem, it will move to the left. The election, though, shows a country clustered around the center. And this is not a “plague on both your houses” result: Voter turnout was actually marginally higher than 2005 — despite analysts’ fears that disgust over last year’s expense account scandal would increase abstention rates.
The other loser was Nick Clegg, the political rocket that fizzled in mid-air Thursday, when the Liberal Democrats actually ended up losing seats, rather than gaining them, as was widely expected. Analysts on both sides of the Atlantic, putting too much weight on a couple of telegenic debate performances, had predicted a better showing from Clegg. The stalemate still casts him in the role of kingmaker, but of a much-diminished stature, having failed to deliver for his own party anything more than what was already there.
Ultimately, though, the tradition of a clear-cut, us-versus-them posture is so embedded in the British parliamentary system that governing parties are uncomfortable with political marriages of convenience. All of which strengthens the likelihood of another general election a lot sooner than in four years.