Welcome to our old friend 'balance of power'

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For almost three years now, we have been living under an orthodoxy. It is pervasive. It seeps through the windows and under the doors. It comes up through the floorboards like the smell of a dead rat. What it amounts to is that whatever Mr Tony Blair does or does not do, however many ministers resign and irrespective of the Government's numerous failures, Labour is certain to win the next election, perhaps by a smaller majority, but win it none the less.

This view was held not only by the party's supporters but by the Liberal Democrats and, reluctant though they might have been to admit it publicly, by the Conservatives as well. Today - the change has come about in the last few weeks - it is held no longer. Or, if it is, it is not with the same degree of strength or conviction. For if Mr Michael Howard cannot manage to march confidently into Downing Street, he can at least do enough to ensure that Mr Blair's continuing tenure is made as uncomfortable as possible. We are back, in short, to our old friend the "hung parliament".

Though we have had numerous such parliaments in our history - in 1910, 1924 and 1929, for instance - the term did not become current until 1974, when Harold Wilson formed his third administration but without an overall majority. The phrase derived from the American "hung jury". James Callaghan's government had no majority after 1976, which brought about the Lib-Lab pact. And John Major had no majority, either, by the time he had finished in 1997.

Despite Mr Major's fairly recent experience, discussion of a hung parliament has trickled into the sand and gone underground. The reason is not far to seek. In the early 1980s, with the foundation of the SDP and, later, the formation of the Alliance, it looked as if we were in for a return to the three-party system. That we had just lived through the 1970s, roughly half of which had been taken up by governments without a majority, made such a state of affairs that much easier to contemplate.

Learned articles were written on the subject. Some were of a psephological nature; while others were constitutional, instructing the Queen on where her duty lay if, say, the largest party had no parliamentary majority, and the two smaller parties wished to combine to form a government. There were several possible permutations of events, which made the speculation even more fun. Indeed, Her Majesty and her lackeys were so exercised by all the talk that they sought the advice of the historian Robert Blake about the correct way for her to proceed if, unfortunately, no party obtained a majority at the forthcoming election.

That talk was not so foolish as it may have appeared subsequently because, in 1983, the Alliance had 25 per cent of the vote, compared to Labour's 28 per cent. Alas, this translated into a mere 23 seats for Liberals and Social Democrats, and Margaret Thatcher had a majority of 144. In 1987 it was 102. All talk of hung parliaments was quietly forgotten.

Mr Blair's even bigger majorities at the last two elections have produced the same anaesthetising effect. Despite Mr Major's experience in the mid-1990s, we cannot envisage a state of affairs where one party or the other does not have a thumping majority. And, conditioned as we are to think that things carry on more or less as they are at the moment, we go on to assume that Mr Blair is sure to obtain a majority of some kind, even if a smaller one.

Our starting point should be the catastrophic defeat inflicted on the Conservatives in 1997. Over the whole 1992-97 parliament, they lost 171 seats. No government had performed remotely as badly since the war. The runners-up to Mr Major were Harold Wilson in 1970, who lost 76 seats, and Alec Douglas-Home in 1964, who lost 61 - though Harold Macmillan had been Prime Minister for most of the time. If RA Butler had fought the election, he would probably have won it, though that is speculative.

But what the electors have done they can also undo. They are perfectly capable of behaving towards Mr Blair as they did towards Mr Major: not, perhaps, on the same punitive scale, but nevertheless in a way which reflects their dissatisfaction with Mr Blair's government. If Labour loses 89 seats, it will have lost its absolute majority. Mr Howard has more to do than Wilson in 1964 or Edward Heath in 1970: but he does not have to do as well as Mr Blair.

In 2001 the voters decided to give Mr Blair another five years to do the job. Most people, I find, still think of the five-and-a-bit-year term allowed by the law (and fully accepted by Mr Major in 1997) rather than of the four years which prime ministers commonly choose. It is even being suggested that Mr Blair may make a dash for it this year, whether with or without the attachment of a European referendum. It does not altogether make sense to me, with or without the referendum, but that it is being talked about at all shows there are some jitters around the place.

There is no real reason why the Government should not clatter merrily on its way until October next year rather than May, which is the month Mr Blair is supposed to have marked in his little book. The most substantial reason is that the Prime Minister does not want to give Mr Howard time to establish himself. Against this, it can be urged that party leaders have their greatest impact sooner rather than later and that by October 2005 Mr Howard will be as much part of the furniture as Mr Blair.

In the last 20 years or so, successive Liberal, SDP and Liberal Democrat leaders have tied themselves into dialectical knots over the attitude they will take if no party has an absolute majority. Mr Charles Kennedy is wise to keep as quiet as he is on the subject. And yet, he cannot avoid it completely. Certainly his object is to maximise his party's representation. But the logic of its position now is that he should also aim to maximise the Conservative Party's numbers, provided that this is at the expense of Labour rather than of the Liberal Democrats. The reasoning of the Thatcher and Major years no longer applies, because it is Labour which is now the predominant party.

This does not mean, as so many seem to believe it does, that Mr Kennedy should adopt Conservative policies or lean in their direction. He could be urging "troops out of Iraq" instead of endorsing Sir Menzies Campbell's formulae, redolent of traditional Liberal vanity and conceit in foreign affairs, which are to be heard weekly on Newsnight. Such a new approach would win Mr Kennedy not only Labour but Conservative support as well and bring a hung parliament that much nearer.