One consequence of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act is that we’ve had to endure the political parties slagging each other off while promising the earth for several months now and the only silver lining to this unwelcome cloud is that we only have to suffer another three weeks of it.
This week sees the launch of the two major parties’ manifestos, not that anyone will actually read them.
Meanwhile George Osborne, who has been cautioning about the pain of austerity and the need for deep cuts in public spending, has now apparently found an extra £8bn for the NHS, while Labour have rounded on his profligacy and declared that all their promises are fully costed and deliverable and magically the deficit will still reduce.
And so it goes on day by day, as claim and counterclaim wing their way from one party to the other and voters simply turn down the volume. Meanwhile, the polls simply refuse to move. The poll of polls each week shows both major parties neck and neck with the SNP likely to be the third largest party and the Lib Dems hovering somewhere between 20 and 30 seats. The much-heralded TV debates have delivered nothing we didn’t already know. David Cameron looked prime ministerial but failed to deliver a knockout blow on Ed Miliband, who succeeded in not being as bad as he was expected to be. Nigel Farage sweated profusely, probably because he refused the powder puff the TV make-up lady offered, and Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood, who nobody outside Wales even recognised, turned out to be sensible and drew audience applause for her tart reprimanding of Farage.
Cameron has not been able to shrug off the image of his party as only interested in the rich and of wanting austerity for its own sake. He scores much higher than Miliband on competence and the economy, but is always epitomised as not understanding the aspirations of ordinary people. Labour, on the other hand, suggest that somehow austerity, which nobody likes or wants, can somehow be wished away. They are supported in this by the SNP and the Greens.
But ‘No to Austerity’ is utterly pointless rhetoric. Ed Balls knows as well as Osborne that we need to close the £100bn gap between what we spend every year and what we collect in taxes. Logically, the best way to do so is to grow the tax take by expanding the economy rather than trying to make the poor richer by just making the rich poorer. That is surely the only debate that actually matters.
No pollster can tell us how the result will pan out on 8 May as the last boxes are counted and I know nothing they don’t but, nonetheless, and at risk of being proved hopelessly wrong on the day, I predict UKIP and the Greens will lose ground as the election nears. But even if the UKIP vote halves, the effect of former Conservatives switching to UKIP will cost the Tories some of the marginal seats they need to win and even more critically, some they need to hold. Conservatives will win the popular vote in the country, but this will not result in more than 285 seats.
Assuming the Lib Dems hold 30 seats, which I believe they will, and that Nick Clegg prefers the devil he knows, that still leaves the two parties short. With eight DUP and three UKIP probably willing to support a minority Conservative government, they might just get there. But if only a very few Tory and Lib Dem seats are lost on very small margins, all that will change.
It is perfectly possible that Labour, supported by the SNP, could cobble together just the same sort of minority administration. What neither of these outcomes points to is long-term, stable government. The odds on two elections this year are well worth a look.
Steve Norris is a former Conservative minister and London mayoral candidate. He is chairman of Soho Estates and the National Planning and Infrastructure Association