OPINION: When the British deliver their electoral verdict on Thursday, the winning party will be presented with a poisoned chalice. The huge cuts the new government will have to make to spending ensure it will be hounded into deep unpopularity and be long branded as the Scrooge that ended a decade of prosperity.
The reality that the golden economy has been dead for two years and has been sustained by massive borrowing will not ease the predicament of the incoming administration. In the cause of weathering the economic storm, spending and borrowing was maintained; only now do the bills have to be paid.
Thirst for power makes this gloomy scenario less than discouraging for the politicians. Their instinct is that it is better to be in control whatever the circumstances, which explains the intensity with which the election is being fought. But events must be lessening that grim enthusiasm.
The likelihood that no party will gain a majority of seats in the House of Commons means that effective financial management will be more difficult. The cuts would have to be decided within a coalition or by a shaky minority government – the first weakened by compromise and the second by timidity.
David Cameron's attempt to make a virtue of those prospects, by telling voters the markets would treat viciously a Britain without a securely ensconced Tory government, has a sound foundation but is proving unpersuasive with many voters. The Conservatives seem to have no prospect of winning a convincing majority.
It is as pointless making detailed predictions about how Cameron would handle this as it is about the path ahead for any of the party leaders. The close three-way race that the opinion polls are predicting means that the distribution of seats will probably let the Liberal-Democrats turn to the Left or the Right to form a coalition.
But even that king-making role is less than certain because of the first-past-the-post electoral system. It may allow the Lib-Dems many fewer seats than their percentage of the national vote should provide.
That skewing effect could allow Labour to come in third in the overall vote stakes but have more seats than any other party in the Commons.
These bizarre prospects are showing up to the British the faults of their electoral system as never before, and have encouraged the Liberal-Democrats to make proportional representation the main demand on their agenda for coalition talks.
They will find more acceptance for this among Labour ranks than among the Tories. Proportional representation has been on Labour's mind since its founding, and Tony Blair formally discussed it with the Lib-Dems during the first months of his prime ministership. His enthusiasm for constitutional reform drove the talks and the calculation that PR would probably keep the Conservatives in just about perpetual opposition.
Blair failed to get the change because of the ancient mantra in British politics about the evil of coalitions and the effectiveness of one party alone holding power.
Britain lost because of that outcome.
The scandals about MPs' feeding too lavishly at the public trough, which have brought Labour and the Conservatives so low in voters' esteem, were largely the result of a party system so strong that it was protected from scrutiny and made its members confident in their greed.
First-past-the-post has extracted a larger penalty. It has prevented the parties evolving into more cohesive groupings.
The Conservatives, for example, are composed of a front bench largely understanding of Europe's core role in sustaining Britain and a back bench chronically opposed to European entanglement.
Labour is composed of a crowded Left wing but an ascendant leadership intent on moderately progressive policies.
If Thursday's vote ensures a strong role for the Liberal Democrats, the possibility of beneficial transformation by way of proportional representation will be greatly enhanced.
If that comes about, history will judge it more important than who comes to occupy No10 Downing St.
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