The long road to the UK’s May 7th general election has begun

The one certain thing seems to be that no single party will be able to win a majority

David Cameron: trying to woo Ukip voters back to the Conservatives. Photograph: Jeff Overs/BBC via Getty Images

David Cameron: trying to woo Ukip voters back to the Conservatives. Photograph: Jeff Overs/BBC via Getty Images

 

Ed Miliband went to Salford on Monday to declare that he would save the National Health Service and balance the UK’s budget with kindness. George Osborne went to the City of London to warn that a Labour return to 10 Downing Street would threaten disaster.

Meanwhile, Kay Burley, of Sky News, stood in a market square in Rotherham – one of the 150 marginal constituencies that will decide the next election – talking to half-bored, mostly poorly informed locals about their voting choices.

It will be a long road to May 7th. Politicians believe that they have to say something a thousand times before it sinks into the public’s consciousness. This year, as soon as the new year had been chimed in, they started with a vengeance, trying to get their version of history accepted.

Much of what has been said so far will be left behind in the mists once May has passed. For example, prime minister David Cameron talked about holding an EU membership referendum earlier than by the end of 2017. In truth, Cameron’s EU remarks became a story only because he did not say something stronger about anything else.

Eurosceptic hopes

For some, Cameron’s declaration was an attempt to woo one-time Conservative voters who have drifted away to the UK Independence Party (Ukip). For others, it was the opening move of a mating dance that will end in coalition between the two parties in a hung parliament on May 7th.

Little, if anything, about life after the election is clear. However, a Conservative-Ukip alliance, if it happens, would prompt a schism among the Conservatives comparable to that suffered after Robert Peel repealed the Corn Laws more than 150 years ago.

Much of the first round of campaigning has been unedifying and has done little to inform voters, but that has hardly been the point, as it has been about laying down core messages that may develop roots in the months ahead.

The Conservatives produced a document listing more than £20 billion of Labour’s alleged spending commitments. Some parts raised serious questions, particularly over Labour’s repeated use of a bankers’ bonus tax to solve all ills.

So far, the bankers’ bonus tax has become Labour’s never-ending, ever-flowering tax, one that at the last count had been put to 10 different uses by Ed Miliband, Ed Balls and the rest of Labour’s front bench.

Familiar Tory strategy

However, this year’s election is not like previous ones. The Scottish National Party could win dozens of seats. Ukip could win a few, but, more importantly, its presence on the ballot paper could decide the result in dozens more.

As the new year beds down, the landscape looks like this: one-party rule after May is all but an impossibility. A “rainbow” coalition may be possible on the numbers, but, equally, seems an impossibility in practice.

Such concerns will begin to play seriously with some groups of voters, particularly those who have been unconvinced of the merits of coalitions involving any cluster of parties, as May comes closer.

The cacophony of January arguments, all negatively framed, from major political figures yesterday will have turned off large sections of voters, but even the main parties’ own backbenchers are ignoring their lead, preferring to sound positive in door-to-door campaigning.

In the meantime, most will agree with Nick Clegg’s sighed comment yesterday that the UK will weary of listening to this political Punch and Judy show for the next four months – even if the days of “agreeing with Nick” about anything else are long past.