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  Conservative poster from the last election campaign: anyone remember how this one turned out?

This Thursday, the General Election will be exactly six weeks away.  The Budget did not fire the dramatic opinion poll surge that Team Cameron are hoping for – a leap in Conservative ratings to over 35 per cent, and a plunge in Labour’s to 30 per cent or below.  Perhaps the start of the campaign proper after Easter, and the launch of the Conservative Manifesto, will start to open such a gap.

More likely, however, it won’t.  The betting markets currently suggest a hung Parliament.  So do the election prediction sites.  At a recent ConservativeHome event, Lord Ashcroft said that his recent polling had found the two main parties even on 270 seats each.

‘This, then, is the battle,’ he said. ‘Can the Conservatives fight back against Labour faster than Labour can fight back against the SNP?’  In other words, Ed Miliband is poised to take seats off David Cameron in England…and Alex Salmond is set to take seats off Miliband in Scotland.

It would not be at all surprising were the Tories to end up with more seats than Labour…but not enough to form a majority Government.  That figure could be as high as 320 or thereabouts; or it could be as low as 275 or so.  Let’s take 290 as a very rough middle-range guesstimate.

Either way, this site wants David Cameron to continue as Prime Minister if the Conservatives are the largest party after May 7.  (If Labour is larger instead, the presumption must be that he will quit both as Prime Minister and party leader.)

That would entail utilising his First Mover Advantage as the serving Prime Minister – since the Queen’s Government must be carried on come May 8 – by coming to an arrangement with as many of the minor parties as he can, under which they agree not to bring down his minority Government.

This, in turn, would mean striving to come to one with Alex Salmond, and the larger number of SNP MPs who are set to return to Westminster.  A constitutional horror?  An offence to Conservative principles?  An invitation to break up the United Kingdom?  Far from it.

Remember: the Conservative Party has already offered more devolution to Scotland than Labour, through the Strathclyde Commission, which said that the country “should have full powers over income tax” – three months or so before the Vow and six months or so before the Smith Commission.

The next logical step would be to offer Scotland Home Rule, together with Home Rule for all the Home Nations – including, of course, England – in a fully federal UK, as recommended in the ConservativeHome Manifesto.

A federal UK thus offers the most sustainable route to what John Redwood calls English Votes for English Needs (EVEN). See also pieces on this site by Daniel Hannan, Ian Anderson and Tom Clarke.  We will write more about this tomorrow.

What is the alternative, if the Union is to be saved (and Cameron to stay on, for that matter)?  Margaret Thatcher tried to wish the problem away.  John Major sent back the Stone of Scone.  Tony Blair and Gordon Brown tried a devolution halfway house with rotten foundations.  None of these ploys worked.

Only the federal solution remains: unless, that is, one prefers shouting “Boo!” at Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon in the hope that they will go away (which they won’t) – while simultaneously bringing closer the very SNP-Labour deal that Team Cameron is rightly warning the country against.

The Tory attack ad assault on Salmond is mighty useful to him, no doubt.  Cameron can roll up Miliband in England, while he does the same in Scotland.  And everyone’s happy – well, the Prime Minister and Scotland’s former First Minister, at least: a sign of this shared electoral interest.

Perhaps backdoor channels are open between them – who knows?  But whether they are or aren’t, the Cameron/Osborne/Crosby trio ought to be just a little bit careful about how they handle Sturgeon and her party during the run-up to May 7.

For as Mark Wallace has pointed out, these attack posters can come back to bite the posteriors of those who produce them (see above).  Cameron surely doesn’t want to make future dealings between himself and Salmond impossible – thereby risking Miliband as Prime Minister, worse danger for the Union, and his own departure from Downing Street…even if he wins more seats than Labour.

Coming next: How Cameron should be ready to negotiate with other parties.