And so it has turned out. After a blackly farcical day, with voters being shut out of polling booths, voting forms inexplicably running out, and a UK Independence Party Candidate crashing in a Polish-built light aircraft as a consequence of his banner—“Vote for Your Country”—getting snagged on the tailplane, the country staggers towards a conclusion in which nothing is concluded.
While counting in some far-flung constituencies continues, what we do know is that the Tories have won more seats than Labour, but are unlikely to win enough to secure an overall majority, and that the Liberal Democrat bubble has burst, Nick Clegg's success as television's Mr. Likeable seemingly counting for nothing when real votes were being cast. Having lost its mandate to govern, Mr. Cameron insists, Labour must now hand the keys of office to him. But if he does indeed fail to win that overall majority, then his own claim to have a mandate to govern appears thin. After 13 years in government, the last of them laborious and ineffective, with an unpopular leader at the helm, British soldiers dying in Afghanistan, and the country facing economic ruin, Labour had every reason to suppose it would be routed. But this is not a rout.
Indeed this is so not a rout that there is talk of Brown endeavoring to find a way of carrying on in alliance with the Liberal Democrats—a stratagem which the letter of the constitution, if not the spirit, permits. Snuggling up to those with whom you would rather not, in ideal circumstances, enjoy intimacy of any sort, is almost certainly going to be a necessity if any party is to form a government. Realists see a Conservative/Liberal Democrat pact as the most likely to win the assent of the electorate, whose sense of fair play would be outraged by the sight of a defeated Gordon Brown still grinning at them in some horrid simulacrum of victory. But much has been assumed of the British Public's preferences that has not been justified by events.
It was thought they so hated Labour that they would embrace the Tories and they haven't.
It was thought their gullibility had finally been unmasked by the Clegg-fest on television but it hadn't. Indeed, if anything, it would now appear that the spotlight on Clegg simply showed up the shortcomings of his party and the British public saw them and made its choices accordingly.
It was thought there would be an upsurge of votes for extremist parties and there hasn't.
And it was thought they would vote decisively, signaling they wanted strong government, and they haven't. Or, put another way, if they did want strong government, they were not persuaded that any of the parties could provide it.
There is some way to go yet, and no one knows how it will end, or when, but so far this is a triumph for the skepticism of an electorate that has shown itself less the slave of television than was anticipated, and less swayed by the febrile fear-mongering of the press than the press hoped—an electorate that has voted unequivocally for equivocation.
Howard Jacobsen is the author, most recently, of The Act of Love.