UK poll likely to herald uncertain future of alliances, horse-trading
The prime minister after May 7 will be one of two men -- the incumbent, Conservative leader David Cameron, who currently heads a coalition government, or his Labour counterpart Ed Miliband.world Updated: Apr 06, 2015 13:16 IST
In one month, Britain votes in a general election likely to put the nail in the coffin of two party politics and herald an uncertain future of coalitions, alliances and horse-trading.
Neither of the two parties which have dominated parliament since the 1920s, the Conservatives and the Labour, is expected to win the 326 House of Commons seats out of 650 needed to govern alone.
They will likely have to team up with a smaller party or parties instead.
The prime minister after May 7 will be one of two men -- the incumbent, Conservative leader David Cameron, who currently heads a coalition government, or his Labour counterpart Ed Miliband.
Those two points aside, the rest is about as murky as the River Thames.
"We are now in a de facto multi-party system," said Simon Hix of the London School of Economics (LSE). "A third vote Conservative, a third vote Labour, a third vote somebody else."
The BBC's opinion poll tracker currently puts the centre-right Conservatives on 34 percent and centre-left Labour on 33%, followed by the anti-EU UKIP, junior coalition partners the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and a string of other parties.
Britain's shifting identity
As if that were not complicated enough, the election is also bringing into focus two important ways in which Britain's identity could change in the coming decades.
Nationalist parties, particularly the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP), look set to make major gains, which could hasten the loosening and eventual break-up of the United Kingdom.
Support for the SNP has surged even though Scotland voted against independence in a referendum last year.
It is expected to win most of Scotland's House of Commons seats in May and says it could be prepared to prop up a minority centre-left Labour government in return for key concessions.
"The UK is now evolving towards a quasi-federal country," said the LSE's Tony Travers.
He added that the SNP's main aim "would not be to produce a stable government in the UK -- it would be to have another referendum on Scottish independence".
Then there is the possibility that Britain could end up leaving the European Union as a result of the election.
Cameron has promised to hold an in-out vote by 2017 if the centre-right Conservatives win outright on May 7.
While none of the main parties are making Europe a big issue in a campaign dominated by the economy and the future of the state-run National Health Service (NHS), polls suggest an EU referendum could be relatively close.
The latest YouGov poll in February found that support for membership was at an all-time high of 45% against 35% in favour of leaving.
Big names at risk
Another consequence of the election is that some of the biggest names in British politics could lose their jobs.
Hix predicted that Cameron would resign as Conservative leader if the party loses the election, while Labour would force Miliband to do the same if he fails to get into Downing Street after five years of austerity.
Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, whose centrist Liberal Democrats are the coalition's junior partners, has seen his party's support slump to single figures in government and could lose his seat, according to the polls.
Nigel Farage of UKIP has said he will quit if he fails to win the House of Commons seat he is contesting.
But many Britons could be more interested in a totally different celebrity come May.
Kate, wife of heir to the throne Prince William, is due to give birth to the couple's second baby in the second half of April, an event whose pageantry and razzmatazz threatens to eclipse anything on offer in the gloomy corridors of the parliament at Westminster.
Experts predict either another coalition or a minority government this time. Smaller parties like the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) and anti-EU UK Independence Party are expected to make major gains.
Here are details of how British general elections work:
# A total of 650 seats in the House of Commons in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are up for grabs. Each comprises an area of around 70,000 voters represented by one member of parliament (MP).
# The "first past the post" system means that the winner of the vote in each constituency takes the seat. Overall national vote share is irrelevant in deciding who wins a general election -- it is all down to the number of seats each party wins. This system favours the Conservatives and Labour and disadvantages smaller parties, who can end up with strong percentages but few seats.
# The election date has been known for four years as it is the first to be held since fixed-term parliaments were introduced in 2011.
# If on May 7 one party wins an overall majority -- 326 seats or more -- the leader of that party is invited by Queen Elizabeth II to form a government.
# If no party wins an overall majority, the result is a hung parliament and Britain enters a period of uncertainty which risks unsettling financial markets.
# In this case, the incumbent prime minister and government remain in office for the immediate future.
# Negotiations start between different parties on whether they could form a coalition government together.
# The incumbent prime minister -- and, separately, the opposition -- can also consider forming a minority government. This is an administration which does not have a House of Commons majority but does have enough support from other parties to win a confidence vote. This backing usually comes in return for policy concessions from the government.
# Where two or more different options for a new government look possible, the parties are expected to hold talks to decide which would command most confidence from the House of Commons.
# The incumbent prime minister is expected to resign when it is clear that someone else is better placed to command the confidence of the House of Commons. This would happen if they could lead a coalition or form a minority government.
# That person is then invited to Buckingham Palace, where the queen will ask them to form a new government and appoint them prime minister. This process is known as the kissing of hands, although the appointment is not formalised until a later meeting -- and no hands are kissed these days.