Are we living through a period of tumultuous and perhaps historic political change? It has felt like that during the past 10 days. The talk among politicians and journalists before and after the second televised debate on Thursday night was apocalyptic. One of the two bigger parties would not survive this election. The era of one-party rule is over forever. These were the dramatic themes.
The second debate did little in itself to change the dynamics. In truth there was no clear winner, but the choreography of these events demands that one emerges. In the first week the novelty of Nick Clegg holding his own was enough for him to be deemed victor, a perception that fed on itself for days. Yesterday morning the verdicts were more mixed, with the increasingly partisan Conservative supporting newspapers determined to call it for David Cameron if they possibly could.
With no substantial constituency in the media, Gordon Brown was always going to have to perform far more effectively than the others to have a chance of coming out on top. He has not done so, but he has been solid, a solidity that might still resonate now the economy moves centre stage in the campaign. Almost forgotten in the excitement about the debates is that this campaign is taking place in the midst of an economic crisis. Cleggmania and the novelty of events have distracted virtually all attention from the fundamental divide in this election: monetarist solutions being put forward by Cameron, and progressive economic proposals espoused with varying degrees of nuanced differences by the other two. This has been my only concern about the debates. Originally, I was worried they would be dull, too constrained by rules, and would put viewers off politics. I am thrilled that I was wrong. They have energised the election.
My only concern is that the debates have become the story to the exclusion of all else. Policies come under less scrutiny than usual as we discuss whether we're living through some kind of revolution. Partly because of this, Cameron may yet prove the main beneficiary of the debates, even though he currently must be wondering what he signed up to. At the start of the year when politics was still being reported in more orthodox ways, quite a few of the Conservatives' policies were flaky on closer examination. They had not done the bomb-proofing required to survive a conventional election campaign. Fortunately for them this has not been a conventional campaign.
This leads me to wonder whether this election will be quite as transforming as it seems. Amidst the excitement, which I share, and the spectacular unpredictability, which I more than acknowledge, it is quite possible that the mould will not be broken. Moulds are hard to break.
On 6 May the Conservatives could still quite easily win a small majority if support for Labour drops significantly. There are some on the left who wallow in disillusionment and have every intention of protesting by voting Lib Dem. If they wake up to find that as a direct consequence David Cameron is in No 10 they will get a shock, but will be powerless to do anything about it.
Meanwhile, Labour could come third in terms of votes cast, a moment of desperate, potentially fatal trauma for a party that has won three elections in a row. But it will secure far more seats than the Lib Dems under all but the most extraordinary circumstances. Not for the first time the electoral system will keep it in the game. The Lib Dems could do well in terms of votes cast, but, like the Alliance in the 1980s, not well enough to flourish in terms of seats. What would then happen? A Conservative government would not change the voting system. At some point in the future the anti-Tory forces would get their act together and coalesce quite possibly around a single party in order to remove the Conservatives. That party could well be Labour because it has more seats and would under the existing voting system still have a better chance of removing the Tories.
In other words, we might be living through a compressed, and therefore more intense, version of the 1980s. The rise of the SDP was seen first as a catastrophe for Margaret Thatcher, when polls suggested she was the most unpopular prime minister of the 20th-century. Roy Jenkins and others claimed they had broken the mould of British politics. The media was gripped. But before long Thatcher became the main beneficiary, with the anti-Tory vote split in two. The Conservatives' core vote in the 1980s was unimpressed by the excitement around the SDP. I suspect the Conservatives' core vote now, admittedly lower, will be less susceptible to Cleggmania than some on the centre left. There is always a solid block in England ready to back a Conservative party that makes tax cuts and Euro-scepticism two of its themes.
Of course there are many other possible scenarios arising from this election. A senior Cabinet minister tells me "this is a very dangerous moment for Labour" and yet it is possible still for Labour to be a big player immediately after the election if it emerges as the largest party. We could still be closer to 1992 if the focus from now on is on the economy. Who leaps with joy at the prospect of George Osborne's emergency Budget? Yesterday's economic figures were about right for Brown. Britain has not lapsed back into recession, but the recovery is slight and precarious.
Equally the Lib Dems could stride forward, although if we are living in a compressed version of the 1980s they might have peaked in terms of their support. What can they say or do to extend it further in the few remaining days? Yet if they retain the level of support they currently command and that translates into a significant increase in seats – not guaranteed – we are in a new political world.
But do not underestimate the chances of there being no new political world. If the Conservatives win there will be much focus on the realignment of the centre left between Labour and the Lib Dems. Even this might not happen as the Lib Dems sniff a chance of replacing Labour in the near future. Conversely, Labour will not die quite so willingly, especially if the Conservative government became unpopular very quickly and a new Leader of the Opposition dares to wonder whether he or she could be prime minister before very long.
Perhaps the world is changing in front of our eyes, but if the voting system is unchanged, and tribal politics reasserts itself, the mould will not be broken that easily.