For a whole week, the political classes have been obsessed by the prospect of a hung Parliament. The subject has arisen quite suddenly, out of nowhere, or almost nothing. All that happened was that a newspaper published an opinion poll showing a reduced but still perfectly healthy Conservative lead. There were also a few straws in the November wind indicating that Mr David Cameron was not the universal favourite to take up residence at No 10, or that Mr George Osborne would be his next-door neighbour.
The trouble is that we have become bored. With Mr Gordon Brown limping along, there is nothing to divert us from the long winter nights that lie ahead until the flowers emerge for the spring election. What more agreeable diversion than to speculate about a hung Parliament?
The phrase is of comparatively recent origin. It derives from the first 1974 election, when Edward Heath tried to hang on to office on the basis that the Conservatives had won more votes than Labour, though Labour had won more seats. The Economist magazine of that time invented the phrase, from the "hung jury" in American trials, where the jury had failed to reach a verdict. The phrase caught on, but the phenomenon – where no party has an absolute majority – is as old as parliamentary politics itself.
No party held a majority in the two elections of 1910. The 1923 election allowed Labour to form its first minority government in 1924. In 1929 Labour took office again under Ramsay MacDonald, and survived for two years until MacDonald formed his supposedly National – in reality, Conservative – government.
In March 1974 Harold Wilson took office once more. In October Wilson won narrowly, by three seats, but Labour lost its majority almost at once, and for the most of this period Labour governed as a minority party, sustained by the Liberals.
In 1950-51 Labour had a tiny majority. it did not feel like that at the time. It seemed smaller still. There were urgings from the Palace that what the country needed was a government of national unity. Order was restored only when the Conservatives won the election.
Labour's small majority of 1964 worked unexpectedly smoothly. The Tories did not expect to win the election which they knew Wilson would call in 1966; nor did they.
The saddest experience was almost certainly that of John Major in 1992-97. He lost his majority towards the end of his period of office. But for most of the time it felt as if he was not governing with any majority at all. Sir John's fatal error – as the late Edgar Lustgarten used to say in those old films about Scotland Yard – was to take the committee stage of the Maastricht treaty on the floor of the House of Commons. There were about a dozen awkward Tories who kept abstaining or voting against the Major government. There was also an accomplished parliamentary operation conducted by John Smith, George Robertson and Geoff Hoon (for Tony Blair was busying himself elsewhere).
Oddly enough, the predominantly anti-European conservative press did not proclaim the awkward squad as heroes. Still less did the liberal papers applaud the Labour opposition for exercising its right to oppose. It was the function of government to get its business through in one piece, on time. And this the government was manifestly failing to do. Accord
ingly, we have quite recent experience of a state of affairs when a government is not all-powerful.
But the high point of speculation about the hung Parliament occurred in the 1980s. Margaret Thatcher went on to win two crushing victories, in 1983 and 1987. It was evident (to me, at any rate) that the splitting of the anti-Tory vote between Labour and the newly formed Alliance would let in Mrs Thatcher. And so it turned out.
This saw the rise of the "constitutional expert", a creature hitherto unknown to our system of government. The monopoly, or duopoly, was held by Lord Blake, and Lord St John of Fawsley. Lord Blake was a good historian and a nice man; Lord St John, formerly Norman St John-Stevas, as the boxing posters would put it, needs no introduction.
More recently a new contender has entered the booth, or the studio: Professor Vernon Bogdanor, who taught Mr Cameron politics at Oxford. Lord Blake is, sadly, no longer with us, and another of that galère, Sir Robert Rhodes James, has gone the same way. All of them gave the impression of providing sage advice to Her Majesty as to her proper constitutional duty, if called upon to to so.
Roy Jenkins was the first leader of the Social Democratic Party and was called the "prime minister designate" for the purpose of conducting negotiations with the other parties. Jenkins was not keen on the title but for a time it stuck. He soon gave way to a joint leadership of David Owen and David Steel.
It became a great sport among lobby journalists to tempt the two of them to say slightly – or it may be very – different things in relation to their future behaviour in some hypothetical government. Lord Owen tended to be bolder in his speculations. He inclined to dislike writing anything down, and was prone to drop off into a stream of consciousness with the slightest encouragement.
Lord Ashdown was anxious to obtain office of some kind or, at any rate, a position of pomp and power under Mr Blair. Alas, Lord Ashdown was led up the garden path, though this was more to do with the size of Labour's majority than with any conscious betrayal on the part of Mr Blair.
Mr Charles Kennedy behaved with admirable self-restraint. So, more or less, did Sir Menzies Campbell, in the limited time available to him.
The change is that Mr Nick Clegg is prepared to support the Tories as no previous Liberal or Liberal Democrat leader was prepared to support them. A possible exception might have been Mr Jeremy Thorpe in 1974. But there are slightly varying accounts of this episode. And, in any case, his party was willing to back him.
From Jo Grimond onwards, the Liberal dream was of reunion of the parties of more or less the left, of the progressive forces of politics. Mr Blair often brought the subject up in his first phase. What did for Mr Blair, and for the Labour Party, was the Iraq war and the constant stream of bossy, petty and interfering policies.
My guess is still that Mr Cameron will win a comfortable majority. Indeed, my prediction is that England are more likely to win the Triple Crown at rugby – that is, to defeat Wales, Scotland and Ireland – than we are to end up with a hung Parliament.
Naturally, I should quite like it to happen. I should welcome the accommodations that would have to be made on all sides and enjoy the spectacle of Mr Osborne looking less smug. Mr Brown might even smile, for once. But I fear it is not going to happen.