In Britain, the idea of a hung parliament is a bit of a novelty. In its parliamentary history, there have been only a few occasions when one of the two main parties has been forced to turn to the smaller third party for support.

Is Britain’s famous two-party system, which has served the country so well but also made British politics somewhat dull and predictable, about to be shaken up ushering in an era of Indian-style coalition governments at Westminster?

Until recently, if anyone had suggested this they would have been dismissed as fantasists. For so dominant was the Tories’ lead in opinion polls that they were seen as dead certain to win the coming general election comfortably. The conventional wisdom was that Labour had already “lost” it and the elections would be simply a formality with voters going through the motions of performing its “last rites.” And the Liberal Democrats, the third party, were dismissed as a bit of a “nuisance.”

But since then, polls have tightened and for the first time Labour believes that it may yet be in with a chance. While, short of a miracle, it still looks impossible for Labour to win an outright majority hopes have been raised that it might be able to gain enough seats to spoil the party for the Tories. The talk, increasingly, is of a “hung” parliament with neither of the two main parties winning a majority and the Lib. Dems — hitherto derided as irrelevant — emerging as kingmakers.

Hot property

No wonder, Lib. Dem leader Nick Clegg has suddenly emerged as hot property with both Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his Tory rival David Cameron shamelessly trying to outdo each other to woo him. A party for which they only ever had contempt (Mr. Brown rarely mentioned it without taking a cheap shot) is now being claimed by both as a “natural” ally.

Mr. Cameron provoked ridicule recently when he claimed that his party shared a “lot of common ground” with Lib Dems and tried to talk up the logic of a “centre-right” alternative to the centre-Left Labour.

The fact is that on most of the key issues such as immigration, electoral reforms, taxes and redistribution of resources, the Tories and Lib Dems are poles apart. It is believed that most Lib Dem activists would rather go with Labour than with Tories if they were to choose between the two in the event of a hung parliament. Heaping scorn on the Tory tactics, one Lib Dem member urged voters not to be “fooled” by Mr. Cameron’s opportunistic “love-bombing” of her party.

“I write this after watching the 6 O’Clock (BBC) news… After the usual sick feeling that I invariably feel when I hear Cameron speak subsides, I am left in a state of mild shock at what he just tried to do: make the public believe that there aren’t many differences between the Lib Dems and the Tories and scaremongering our supporters into voting for them under the pretence that a hung parliament would be ‘bad for Britain,’” said Layla Moran, a prospective Lib Dem parliamentary candidate.

In a desperate move to “outbid” the Tories, Mr. Brown has given in to the Lib Dems’ demand for electoral reforms. Indeed, he has already set in motion a legislation promising a referendum on an alternative voting system after the elections. And the trick appears to have worked with at least some Lib Dem strategists. One Lib Dem frontbench MP is reported as saying that Mr. Brown’s move has gone down well enough in the party for him to secure its support in forming a government if there is a hung verdict.

Publicly, of course, Lib Dems are playing hard to get in order to extract maximum price for their hypothetical support. Mr. Clegg, clearly enjoying his new status as a potential kingmaker, has been deliberately ambivalent in his remarks — declaring “plague on both your houses” in the same breath as suggesting that he would support whichever party gets the biggest “mandate.”

All this will sound familiar to Indian voters used to witnessing political horse-trading that follows a divided political verdict, but in Britain the idea of a hung parliament is a bit of a novelty. In Britain’s parliamentary history, there have been only a few occasions when one of the two main parties has been forced to turn to the smaller third party for support. Besides, unlike India where the single largest party is normally entitled to being given the first crack at forming a government, Britain follows a slightly different practice. Here, the outgoing prime minister retains the right to continue in office (even if his party loses the majority in the elections) unless he or she is defeated on the floor of the House.

Considering that Labour remains the underdog (or “insurgent,” the term preferred by party strategists) despite a slight improvement in polls a hung parliament is its best hope. Being able to deprive the Tories of an outright majority will itself be seen as akin to a victory.

Historically unstable

But while this might be good for Labour’s morale and even help it remain in power with the Lib Dems’ support , historically coalition governments have not worked in Britain. They have been unstable, to start with, and collapsed within a short period leading to fresh elections.

“An inconclusive election result might lead to a period of uncertainty and delay, with negative consequences for public confidence and government effectiveness,” warns a report published by the Institute for Government, an independent think-tank.

Meanwhile, although the elections are still a good four months away (the most likely polling date is May 6), unless Mr. Brown gets bold enough to call them early, the election campaign is already in full swing. Such is the “election fever” that someone, newly arrived in Britain, can be forgiven for believing that the polling day is just round the corner. Hundreds of posters bearing an (allegedly) airbrushed photograph of Mr. Cameron and declaring that the country has had enough of New Labour and “we can’t go on like this” have sprung up; and not a day passes without Messrs Brown, Cameron and Clegg not unveiling new policy initiatives though, more often than not, there is little new about them.

Notwithstanding the seemingly confrontational rhetoric, there are actually few clear dividing lines between the two main parties on the really big issues of the day. Mr. Brown’s attempt to create one by portraying the Tories as the party of the rich and the privileged whose policies are “dreamt up on the playing fields of Eton” and contrasting them with Labour’s supposedly pro-poor agenda has been shot down by his own party. The fear was that stoking a phoney “class war” in order to target Labour’s “core” vote risked alienating the “aspirational” middle class voters. It was on the back of these — mostly floating — voters that Labour has been able to win three consecutive general elections, and to lose their support could be fatal at a time when even its core voters are threatening to abandon it.

The biggest campaign issue relates to public spending cuts to balance a staggering £178 billion budget deficit caused by government borrowings in the wake of the recession. Whichever party comes to power will need to take some hard decisions in terms of spending cuts and/or tax increases and the only question is the scale of the cuts and where the axe will fall.

Mr. Brown has been accused of being disingenuous in trying to pitch the elections as a choice between “Labour investment” and “Tory cuts.”

No doubt, Tories are notorious when it comes to cutting public spending (Margaret Thatcher effectively destroyed Britain’s public services by starving them of public funds) but given the dire state of the British economy even Labour will struggle to maintain the currents levels of spending. The Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling, who is normally more upfront than the prime minister, has already warned of deep cuts ahead.

So, there goes another spurious dividing line.

Similarly, on immigration — another key election issue — the rhetoric is much the same. There is a competition going on between Labour and the Tories as to who can sound more tough on immigration as they seek to neutralise the appeal of the far-right British National Party which is threatening to take away substantial white working class votes on the back of a poisonous anti-immigrant agenda.

Voters confused

With so little to choose from, voters are confused and hence the buzz about a hung parliament. Ultimately, the election would be decided not so much on the basis of policies as on the extent of Labour-fatigue among voters after nearly 13 years of its rule. The view that if over the next four months Labour is able to get the country out of recession it could yet pull off a surprise victory has merit but for that to happen would require a dramatic economic turnaround. And, at the moment, that looks unlikely.