Solving the riddle of the electionâ€™s missing man
Two Kings and a Joker is the hand the media traditionally aims to deal the public in their coverage of general elections. They donâ€™t always manage to do so as it depends on the real-life characters available but the battle for No 10 is usually best told as a contest between two big parties with a wild-card element thrown in.
That wild-card has usually been the Lib Dems, or the Liberal-SDP alliance before them. Would they â€˜break the mouldâ€™, or at least make substantial gains, and if so, at the expense of who? Several times it looked as if they might; usually they didnâ€™t. Most spectacularly, Nick Cleggâ€™s party led several of the campaign-period polls in 2010 following his success in the first debate only to wind up with fewer seats than theyâ€™d started off with once the voting had taken place. But thatâ€™s to get ahead of ourselves: the point is that the Lib Demsâ€™ progress was a central part of the coverage of that campaign. By contrast, this year, both Clegg and the wider Lib Dem team are notable only by their absence.
The reason is simple enough: thereâ€™s a different Joker. For a long time it looked as if Nigel Farage was being set up for the role. The election of several hundred UKIP councillors in 2013/14, their victory in the European elections and the two MPs defecting to them â€“ consolidated in by-election wins â€“ all pushed UKIP to polling scores regularly in the higher teens and sometimes into the twenties, scores which would have seen them make further Westminster gains if realised on May 7. Since the New Year, however, UKIP has gone backwards and now looks at least as likely to make net losses as net gains. No story there then even if, as is still probable, they finish third in the popular vote.
Instead, of course, it is the SNP which has produced the Joker and to which the media (and rival parties) have turned their attention â€“ with good reason. Virtually every poll since the referendum has pointed to the kind of landslide swing in voting intention for Westminster that the SNP has already achieved at Holyrood. Thereâ€™s a strong probability that theyâ€™ll have the third-most MPs after the election and will not only sweep Scottish Labour from the pre-eminence theyâ€™ve enjoyed at UK general elections since the 1960s but reduce them to a taxi-cab of a delegation. Itâ€™s the kind of dramatic story that none of the other potential Jokers â€“ nor the Tories or Labour for that matter â€“ have been able to deliver.
Sturgeon gate-crashing the party hasnâ€™t changed the Two Kings and a Joker formula though, with the result that the Lib Dems, UKIP and the Greens have received only perfunctory coverage. Nick Clegg might have been granted the occasional TV appearance but the Lib Dems still have five other cabinet ministers: when was the last time you saw or heard from any one of them?
Does that matter? Apart from the question of lost deposits, you might think not. After all, the seats theyâ€™re really interested in are those they hold and those they think they can win; constituencies where theyâ€™ll already have a very strong ground game. Considering that Cleggmania didnâ€™t help them particularly in those sort of constituencies in 2010 the reverse ought to hold true this time: a collapse in national support among those who have little direct contact with the party will not necessarily feed through to places where the party is strongly established â€“ or at least, not to the same extent. On the other hand, the lack of any national media presence or policy impact has reduced their candidates to effectively a collective of independents.
A more pertinent effect will be the indirect one on the Con/Lab battles. With no means of attracting them back, the dissipation of the 2010 Lib Dem vote is now hard-wired into the voting patterns in those constituencies. In effect, Sturgeon might be causing Labour havoc north of the border but sheâ€™s done them a favour south of it.
p.s. One factor not being sufficiently taken into account in considering what might affect voting during the remainder of the campaign is the royal birth. Reports suggest that this will very probably happen before polling day and if so will be the lead story for two or three days. Obviously campaigning will continue but for those swing voters, particularly those whose involvement in politics extends to casting a vote only once every five years, a lot will have their own attention distracted and all will see far less that might make them change their minds.