What’s the worst that could happen? It’s a question that the party leaders ought to be asking themselves, because in this most unpredictable of elections, some of the possibilities that present themselves are extreme.
In a tight race, with lots of undecided voters and regional variation, a late swing in the next ten days could make all the difference – and not in a good way.
And so, based on recent polls and allowing for a bit of slippage here and there, this is the worst that could happen for each of the parties:
Of all the parties, the SNP faces the best worst-case scenario. Unless the polls are completely wrong, Nicola Sturgeon can be sure of a landslide victory.
There are a few potential flies in the ointment. For one thing, the tyranny of high expectations. Winning less than fifty seats might now be a disappointment; and ‘merely’ managing to quintuple the party’s Westminster contingent would be a bitter disappointment. At the very least, and with a view to future realignments, cannier Nats will be eyeing the results for evidence of anti-SNP tactical voting.
Then there’s the Downing Street problem. A governing majority composed of English and Welsh MPs would suit the SNP’s long-term purposes. But should the SNP hold the balance of power, things could get messy. For all the leverage she’d gain, Nicola Sturgeon won’t like the idea of Alex Salmond wheeling-and-dealing in London while she holds the fort in Edinburgh.
Still, let’s not exaggerate the downside. Any problems that the SNP might have on May 8th will be problems of success – indeed of the greatest victory in the party’s history.
2015 was supposed to be UKIP’s year. However, the SNP have stolen the show – it’s the tartan army not the ‘People’s Army’ that’s the talk of the town.
Of course, UKIP can expect a hugely better result than in 2010 – anything less than a tripling of their share of the vote would be a massive shock. Furthermore, the shock could be in the other direction – we can’t be certain that polling methods have captured the full extent of UKIP support.
However, on the evidence we have so far, the following is not an impossible worst-case scenario: that, Clacton aside, UKIP miss every one of their targets – including South Thanet, on which Nigel Farage has staked his leadership. The latest constituency poll puts Farage ahead, but much of his lead depends on people who didn’t vote for anyone last time.
With UKIP resources drawn to the very tip of Kent, Farage could yet make it to Westminster, but with only Douglas Carswell for company – which would be the least comfortable double act since Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
To cap it all, here’s one last possibility – that the Lib Dems nudge past UKIP for third place on vote share. Oof!
Just about clinging to third place is the very best that the Lib Dems can hope for – which tells you something about their predicament.
One of the party’s traditional strongholds – Scotland – is already doomed (Orkney and Shetland will stay loyal, but that’s all they can count on). The real blow would be a near wipeout in their other stronghold – the West Country – where the Conservatives are hoping for multiple gains. With the loss of urban marginals to Labour, that would take their parliamentary numbers back down to pre-1997 levels.
The survivors may also find themselves leaderless. As I discussed the other week, Nick Clegg could lose Sheffield Hallam to Labour – a seat full to the gennels with vengeful students.
The irony is that this yellow rump may still be the rock on which the next government is built. No rest for the wicked!
With Labour, there are two worst-case scenarios.
The first version has Labour’s poll rating whittled away in the final week of the campaign. Two or three percentage points could dribble away to the Conservatives, the Lib Dems, UKIP, the Greens and the stay-at-home party. This would take Labour from the mid-thirties to the low-thirties – enough to take back some marginals, but not enough to kick Cameron out of Downing Street.
Still, this would excuse Labour from having to implement the next five years of austerity and they’d get to ditch Ed Miliband. So, a few silver linings.
Of course, I haven’t mentioned Scotland yet – which will be catastrophic for them. Indeed, one iteration of a plausible analysis leaves Labour with just one Scottish MP (Willie Bain in Glasgow North East, Britain’s most leftwing constituency). I realise this could be a worst-case scenario for the Union too, but you’d need a heart of Scone not to laugh.
For years, the Labour joke has been that there are more pandas in Edinburgh Zoo than Tory MPs in Scotland. However, with at least three Scottish seats winnable for us, the score on May 8th could be as follows: Tory MPs 3, pandas 2, Labour MPs 1.
Of course, the big winners will be the SNP, which brings us to the other worst-case scenario. Labour are well behind the Conservatives on seats, but with more than fifty MPs, the SNP are the kingmakers. Thus Labour could find themselves lumbered with the responsibilities of government, Ed Miliband as Prime Minister and Alex Salmond as Governor-General of England.
The final twist would be a strong UKIP showing in Labour heartlands south of the border – which might not cost them any seats this time round, but which could pose an SNP-style threat in 2020.
The worst-case scenario for the Conservatives is losing power. End of.
Well, not quite. As I’ve argued before, it’s possible that we could come first in seats and votes – and even take a larger vote share than in 2010 – but still lose the keys to Downing Street. I ventured that in such circumstances, David Cameron could stay on as leader – not least because a second election could be just around the corner.
A true worst-case scenario would involve us coming second in seats and votes, with vote share sinking to the low thirties. This would mean the loss of scores of marginals – some of them to UKIP. There’d also be few, if any, compensating gains from the Liberal Democrats.
This would mean the end of David Cameron, of course. But not only him. Everything deemed to be associated with him and what used to be called the ‘Notting Hill set’ would be swept away. Quite what would replace it is anyone’s guess – as would be the time required for the party to recover.
It could be argued that we’ve yet to recover from 1997 – proof that worst-case scenarios are best avoided.