As I write, there is only one constituency left to declare: Thirsk and Malton, where they are not voting until 27th May, but where the Conservatives would seem to be supremely safe. So, the potential best result for the Conservatives is a total of 307 seats, which would leave them 19 short of an overall majority (and the potential worst result is a total of 306, 20 short of an overall majority). Even with a deal with the DUP (which would gain them an extra 8 votes in the Commons), they fall 11 short of an absolute majority. If we factor in the 5 Sinn Fein MPs – who will, presumably, refuse to take their seats as usual, thus effectively reducing the target for an overall majority from 326 to 321 – the Conservatives are only 6 votes shy of being able to carry a Queen’s Speech vote (the de facto confidence measure which establishes whether or not a government is able to command a majority in the House of Commons).
In this context, the Scottish and Welsh Nationalists – with their combined total of 9 MPs – will likely be crucial. In left-right terms, these are not natural allies of the Conservatives and would be unlikely to consistently vote with them, but might be persuaded to abstain in return for a guarantee of no cuts (or less severe cuts) in funding for the devolved governments. If the Nationalists did abstain, the Conservatives would be able to carry the Queen’s Speech with a majority of 3 (assuming no individual mavericks in any of the coalition partners voted against their party line).
On this basis, I would argue that a minority Conservative-led administration, sustained in office by the active support of the DUP and the passive support of the Scottish and Welsh Nationalists, is perhaps the most likely outcome. Since the Nationalists always abstain on legislation that applies only to England, the Conservatives wouldn’t have to negotiate their way through the bulk of their England-only legislation. That said, a majority of 3 is incredibly tight, and is likely to result in a government that can only pass legislation that has a very broad consensus within their own party.
It remains entirely possible (maybe even probable) that the Conservatives will arrange some kind of a deal with the Lib Dems – most likely Bill-by-Bill support or abstention in return for a speedy referendum on a form of Proportional Representation acceptable to the Lib Dems. (The Lib Dems are not fans of the system of PR proposed by Labour.) It’s also not entirely beyond the realm of the plausible that there might be a formal Lib-Con pact, but I think that’s unlikely. It would be an attractive idea for the Conservatives in some ways, as it would put them at the head of a comfortable majority. From the Lib Dems’ perspective, though, if they can get the referendum on the basis of an informal arrangement, it’s not clear what they would gain from going into formal coalition (it’s highly unlikely David Cameron would be prepared to offer active support for PR, because under a PR system the influence of the Tories would be drastically curtailed).
It’s also just about possible that Labour might try to form a very broadly-based coalition, calling it something like a National Government. But they would require the active support of the Lib Dems (i.e. not just abstention) to overcome the combined forces of the Conservatives and the DUP. To be sure of carrying their legislation in the Commons they would also need, at a minimum, the passive support (i.e. abstention) of the Welsh and Scottish Nationalists and Caroline Lucas of the Greens. Even then, they would only have a majority of one, making them exceptionally vulnerable to dissent (or even an MP just being ill in hospital, or trapped abroad because of, say, a volcanic ash delay). I really can’t see this possibility playing out, and to be honest put Gordon Brown’s continuing insistence that it’s a possibility down to sheer bravado.
That’s what I’m thinking at the moment, anyway.