Might it be the shortest-lived ministry since Wellington?
As one of pbcâ€™s more regular posters has reminded us more than once, there doesnâ€™t need to be much slippage in the Tory lead to turn the current projected overall majority into minority territory and while it remainsÂ odds-on with all bookies that the Conservatives will win outright, the best odds on No Overall Majority are just 11/4 with Ladbrokes.
Letâ€™s suppose for the moment that the Conservatives win the largest number of MPâ€™s and most votes butÂ fall short of an overall majority, an eventuality the markets imply is about a 5/1 shot. Strange as it sounds, itâ€™s not impossible that Brown could end up back in Downing Street by the Summer even if he vacates it in May.
The first thing it turns on is the Conservativesâ€™ intention to introduce an emergency budget, which George Osborne yesterday pledged would make savings on things like Child Trust Fund spending. That, however, can only be the start of it. The scale of cuts needed will be in the tens of billions, not hundreds of millions, and will be painful.
The other is what Gordon Brown intends to do after losing office. Does he, like Kinnock, Major and Hague, resign immediately or does he, like Callaghan and Howard, stay on for at least a short time? If he resigns immediately, Labour will be in the middle of their own leadership election(s) when Osborneâ€˜s budget will be delivered, which would practically render them out of the game for the duration; were he to stay until at least the Summer recess, Labour would still be on something of a war footing.
The next variable is the Lib Dems. Iâ€™ve assumed that consistent with their earlier announcements, theyâ€™d allow the Conservatives to form a government if they won most seats and votes. However, abstaining on a Queenâ€™s Speech is one thing, allowing specific measures to pass in a budget is quite another. If the Budget is hard, Lib Dem activists and voters will be demanding opposition to it.
That would produce an awfully big call for Clegg and Cable: theyâ€™d have to choose between on the one hand becoming passive supporters of the government and on the other, probably bringing it down.
If a government loses a budget outright, or measures so central that it might as well be the whole thing, one of three things ought to happen: the government seeks to put forward a new budget that will command support, the government resigns, or the government calls a general election.
In the scenario sketched out, two of these options may well be ruled out for practical or political purposes. A dissolution following a budget delivered in early June would imply an election well into July, once debates and votes are added in – into Summer holiday season. In addition, itâ€™s questionable whether a dissolution would be granted so soon after the previous election and even if it was, the parties would have no money to fight it.
The alternative of presenting a different budget more to the Lib Demsâ€™ liking may also be unacceptable to the Tories. One of the core components of election strategy is likely to be the state of the economy and the need for radical measures to deal with it. Anything other than nominal tinkering before a second budget would completely undermine that case. Besides, if the Conservatives do believe that analysis, whatâ€™s the point of their delivering a mish-mash that wonâ€™t work?
So the only real optionÂ would beÂ resignation. But to whom could the Queen then turn to form a ministry? Not to any other Tory, so it would have to be the leader of the opposition – if Labour had a permanent one – or back to Cameron if it subsequently became obvious that there was no alternative.
The Lib Dems would have to choose between reinstating the PM that the country had just kicked out and backing the Budget that their supporters opposed.Â After dreaming of a hung parliament for decades, if it comes, it could present some nightmarish choices.