Alan Watkins: Mr Brown is trying to appear a lover of peace and concord, but it won't come off

No wonder they think there will be no party with an overall majority
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The Independent Online

Whose footsteps trip light these early winter mornings? Step forward, Walter Menzies Campbell. Why is Ming so pleased with himself? I will tell you. It is because he has come through a dark tunnel and emerged safe and sound on the other side.

This is the way "Crossbencher" of the Sunday Express used to write in the 1960s. I know, because I used to write some of it myself. In those days, the Liberal leader, who was up, or down, was John Jeremy Thorpe, who is happily still with us, though all his Parliamentary equivalents - Macmillan, Gaitskell, Wilson, Heath, Home, Callaghan - have gone to a better place.

Mr Thorpe had his moment of destiny, or possible destiny, in February-March 1974, when Edward Heath solicited Liberal support to continue what was by then a minority Conservative government. Interestingly enough, the Conservatives would not have been able to constitute a full majority even if they had enjoyed Liberal support.

As things turned out, Mr Thorpe was sent packing by his own party. The Conservatives themselves were scarcely happier. Heath's offer fell far short of formal coalition: what it amounted to was a Speaker's Conference on electoral reform which committed nobody to anything, together with a posting to the Home Office. It is one of the curiosities of history that, if Mr Thorpe had accepted the offer, the Home Secretary might later have gone on trial for conspiracy to murder.

In fact there was no definite offer from Heath. Still less did Mr Thorpe understand that anything firm was on the table. In a few days, the proposals, such as they were, trickled off the table and on to the carpet; while Harold Wilson formed his own minority government.

This lasted until October 1974, when Labour was returned with a majority of three. Labour lost its majority with a by-election defeat in 1976, after which the Government shifted as best it could, assisted by the Lib-Lab pact, until Margaret Thatcher won in 1979. There may now be a repetition of the second half of the 1970s. Or perhaps the fag-end of the Major administration in an equally persuasive model, when at the dissolution the last Conservative government was in a minority of three. The political class has decided that the era of large majorities, from 1997 to the present day, is coming to an end; and in its collective wisdom it may well turn out to be right.

For instance, Sir Menzies and his Liberal Democrats have held together remarkably well. This was not, to be sure, the wisdom of the wise even six months ago. In those days, the sad fall of Mr Charles Kennedy was seen as a blow to the party's prospects; Sir Menzies was hesitant in the House and was, above all, "too old".

In reality, the Lib Dems were doing quite well in the opinion polls and even better in the by-elections that came up. If the Parliamentary sketch writers had been in a position to decide the 2001 election, Mr William Hague would have become prime minister. Today, Sir Menzies can perform at Questions as impressively as Mr David Cameron or Mr Tony Blair; more so, if his questioning of Mr Blair over Trident last week is any guide.

Likewise with Iraq. Mr Blair is shifty, and Mr Cameron is distinctly uneasy. We need not become too carried away by Sir Menzies' recent interventions, any more than there was any need to depreciate him after he had just become leader. We have to preserve a sense of proportion, that is all.

Arithmetically, it is possible to end up with a hung parliament when the minor party has fewer seats than it had when there was a huge majority for the governing party. The Liberals had only 14 seats in February 1974 but the Liberal Democrats had 62 in May 2005. Even so, the probability of a hung parliament must increase mathematically if the number of third-party members is growing. The usage "hung parliament", by the way, derives from the American hung jury, and was imported into political chatter in the 1970s by The Economist.

There is another factor that may influence the new age of small majorities or, indeed, of no majorities at all: that is, the arrival of Mr Gordon Brown. He is making a brave stab at being the author of peace and lover of concord, but I am afraid it does not quite come off.

He is a contentious spirit, which is partly to his credit. There was a half-hearted - well, it was perhaps slightly more than a half-hearted - endeavour to bring a challenger up to the mark, but the efforts came to nothing in the end. It is highly unlikely that we shall see yet another huge Labour majority next time round. For the first time since, I suppose, 1994, the Conservatives think they can win. In practice, however, the Tories are prepared to speculate on a less ambitious basis. They won 197 seats at the last election. They would need over 120 more of these to be sure of forming a majority government. Labour, by contrast, has to lose only just over 30 to lose its majority outright. No wonder the political classes have come to the firm conclusion that they will not see any party with an outright majority!

And yet, we have been here before. I have certainly been here before. This was not in 1974. It was assumed then that Heath would win the election with an increased majority, because an admittedly unpopular government was taking on the even more heartily disliked trade unions. "Who governs Britain?", so Heath asked. "It certainly isn't you, chum", came the reply. The hung parliaments of the 1970s arrived as a shock to the system.

The commentators persisted in fighting the battles of the previous war. And so, having come through the parliamentary excitements of the Wilson and Callaghan years, we turned with relish to the difficulties of the Thatcher era; or so we fondly supposed. But instead of leading to a minority government, the formation of the SDP and the Alliance split the Labour vote and brought about a thumping majority for the Conservatives in 1983. The position of Roy Jenkins was surrounded by trouble, most of it not of his own making. By the time of the next election in 1987, one might have thought that David Owen and David Steel would have learnt their lesson. It was speculation as far fetched as the tea from China.

It took the accession of Mr Kennedy to bring to an end the urge to speculate about what so-and-so would do if someone else did such-and-such. Sir Menzies has continued the admirable practice of refusing to answer questions which lead to nothing but trouble.