Election time for the UK

TWENTY MINUTES with the monarch, and the die was cast

TWENTY MINUTES with the monarch, and the die was cast. Queen Elizabeth flew by helicopter to Buckingam Palace from Windsor for the appointment with her prime minister, and the election campaign was formally on, parliament to be dissolved in a week. On May 6th, the people of the United Kingdom will at last have their say on a tired government, 13 years in power, and probably consign Prime Minister Gordon Brown and New Labour to history. “The most important election for a generation,” Tory leader David Cameron insisted, as every opposition leader, in every election has done for generations. But he may be right.

Yet there’s many a slip between cup and lip, and polls yesterday variously put Labour’s deficit on the Conservatives at between a declining four and a widening 10 percentage points – the first, a gap small enough to produce a Labour absolute majority, the latter, sufficient for the Tories to do likewise. In between lies the prospect of a hung parliament with the Liberal Democrats, kingmakers. Their leader, Nick Clegg, was quick to remind voters that it is no two-horse race, although coalition remains a dirty word to British voters, and the prospect may actually alienate his potential support.

The election will be a bitter hard-fought battle for the middle ground both over who can best be trusted to pull the economy out of the dumps and the personalities of the two main leaders. It will be punctuated for the first time by three TV debates involving party leaders, the first on ITV next week, and enlivened by an internet campaign the like of which has only been seen in the US.

Crucially, because of the vagaries of the first-past-the-post system, the real election will be fought in only 78 Labour/Conservative battleground constituencies and 12 three-way fights. Some 382 safe seats – 59 per cent of the Commons – are seen as “most unlikely” to change hands. How well the Lib Dems do in the squeeze between the big two is as much of a lottery as ever.

Reform of the electoral system, to be put to a referendum in the autumn in the eventuality of a Labour win, will also be too late to spare the divided unionists of Northern Ireland from more of the self-inflicted wounds that lost them Fermanagh South Tyrone and South Belfast to nationalists in 2005. Unless, that is, the Ulster Unionists and DUP can agree non-party compromise candidates quickly. Whether Lady Sylvia Hermon can hold her own in North Down as an Independent against her old party and the extent to which Sinn Féin can reaffirm its dominance over the SDLP will also make for a lively election campaign in the North.

But the candidate who faces the toughest test of this election will be politics itself. Massive disillusionment of the public caused by the political expenses saga could see voters deserting the mainstream parties for extremists like UKIP and the BNP, or, just as likely, deciding to stay away in large numbers. Turnout will determine the shape of any majority but also the authority which any government that emerges is able to command. At a time when leadership and tough decisions are called for, politics itself badly needs a vote of confidence.