Three men. One stage. Alastair Stewart. This was politics on a Hollywood scale. Or maybe not. But even still, on Thursday April 15 it was clear that we were witnessing something radical in what had become a very staid and pedestrian political sphere. The leaders of the three big parties spent an hour and a half stood at the rostrum chewing the fat on the key areas of policy and at times it was heated and passionate, which is ultimately what the public wants to see. We have an increasingly apathetic society in Great Britain with the MPs expenses scandal seemingly the straw that broke the camel's back. To engage people, something had to give. With the ITV debate, a platform was provided by which each party's message could be projected directly to tens of millions of living rooms across the country.
And so to Granada Studios, Manchester. The 'clunking fist' came out fighting in the opening sparring rounds, landing blows with his reference to Lord Ashcroft-funded posters and an air-brushed Cameron but as ever with a Gordon Brown joke, the crow bar was almost visible. Gag of the night: 'This is not question time David, it's answer time' - cue a look so smug on Brown's face he looked like his head would explode with the smugness. The usual calm and collected David Cameron looked a little worried during the early exchanges. His authority on domestic affairs has been a supposed strongpoint as he sought to address the issue of 'Broken Britain', instead he simply did not take the lead on this. His smoothness in front of the camera did, however, manifest itself as the debate rumbled on, and Cameron was also able to successfully associate policy with real life, relating an answer on the NHS to his experiences with his late son.
Meanwhile, Nick Clegg, suddenly thrust from relative anonymity into the spotlight, must have been rubbing his hands together; every time the Labour and Conservative leaders locked horns, he could stand back and say 'well these two are just spinning the same old tired yarns and repeating themselves while we have a fully costed set of policies in our manifesto'. It was here that Clegg could distance himself from Brown and Cameron by focusing on his own party's clearly laid out spending plans, such as the £17bn tax giveaway. Time and again, Clegg was able to lump Labour and the Conservatives together as being 'as bad as each other', a successful tactic in drawing clear dividing lines between the Lib Dems and their rivals. Clegg laid down a challenge to the other two to be honest to the electorate about the scale of the cuts needed and pointed to the fact that the Lib Dems would cut the £100bn Trident nuclear deterrent - "You two need to move on. We're not in the cold war anymore," was Clegg's denouncement. Tellingly, he also wriggled away from Brown's attempts to link the Lib Dems to Labour through policies on which the prime minister would say 'I think Nick agrees with me on this'. Clegg was determined to plough his own furrow and ignore as much as possible any overtures from Brown; a plan that worked effectively.
Cue a week of furious media activity which saw the debate scrutinised to within an inch of its life. It was Jay Leno who once said: 'Politics is show-business for ugly people'. With the initial debate going out on primetime ITV, this was a domain usually preserved for shows such as Britain's Got Talent and so naturally, personality and style come increasingly into the equation, over policy. And if Brown has a 'face for radio', as Neil Kinnock has said then Clegg certainly has a face for television - a key tool in his armoury. Meanwhile, the Clegg phenomenon puts Cameron in a very difficult position. Cameron thought that he had the 'change' mantle sewn up. The entrance of Clegg has left him somewhere in the middle struggling to differentiate himself. He can't escape his past - which is difficult considering his privileged background and the Tories' history of power - and claim to be fresh and new.
And so came the second debate, aired a week later on Sky News. For Brown and Cameron, this was time to lick their wounds and formulate a game plan to deal with the plucky newcomer. Knowing full well that there is still plenty of scope for a shift in terms of voter allegiance as evidenced by the glut of polls in the wake of the first debate which had the Lib Dems up by significant margins, the second debate took on huge significance. One key difference was that thankfully, the din of Alastair Stewart's strange mutation of Tourettes that had him shouting "Mr Brown. Mr Clegg. Briefly Mr Brown. MR BROWN!" was replaced by the more soothing tones of Adam Boulton. Hopes that Clegg may turn up wearing an 'I'm with stupid' t-shirt and place himself next to Brown were sadly not realised but there is still the third debate for Brown to pull a similar stunt and somehow end up next to a mirror.
The biggest contrast between the first and the second debates was that dividing lines were clearer and there was generally a bit more needle to proceedings, predominantly offered by a very spiky Brown. Rather inevitably, he stuck to the 'It's about the economy, stupid' strategy. But his cumbersome attack on Cameron being a danger to the economy and Clegg being a danger to security backfired somewhat as he sounded like a scaremonger. That said, as the Conservative desire to avoid a hung parliament increases, scaremongering tactics could be particularly prevalent as the campaigning process enters the final furlong.
In the wake of the second debate, ComRes/ITV poll had Clegg as winner (33%), with Brown and Cameron tying on 30%, whereas YouGov had Cameron on 36%, Clegg on 32% and Brown trailing on 29%, for instance. It's a genuine three-horse race now. And with a quarter of the 9.4mn viewers watching the first debate claiming they are prepared to switch their vote (The Lib Dems being the major beneficiary), according to a Guardian/ICM poll, the election is nowhere near the foregone conclusion it once seemed. Despite myself I have actually found myself getting excited about three men talking for an hour and a half. Whisper it gently but politics just got interesting.
What is a hung parliament? According to the definition given by the Hansard Society (the UK's leading independent, non-partisan political research and education charity) a hung parliament occurs when no party achieves an overall majority (more than 50% of the seats in the House of Commons) following a general election.
What happens then?
In the case where an incumbent prime minister loses his overall majority in the Commons, but where no other party has a majority, he may remain in office. He then has first call on forming an administration and may invite the opposition parties to form a government. The incumbent leader has several options open to him: he can choose to govern from a minority position; to govern as a minority but on the basis of an informal agreement with one or more of the other parties; or to establish a formal coalition with one or more of the other parties.
Significantly, the UK parliamentary system does not require a positive majority for the government and its programme, merely that no combination of parties can form a majority against it. Following May's election, Labour will remain in power so long as it has the support of either the Liberals or the Tories.
And if they can't?
If the incumbent prime minister either fails to reach an agreement with one or more of the other parties, or fails to command the confidence of the House of Commons, the task of forming a government will then fall to the leader of the largest opposition party who will subsequently be named as prime minister. In the present circumstance, a Conservative-Lib Dem pact would see Labour ousted from power.
What are the main implications for the country?
A hung Parliament will not necessarily be weak and unstable but it will limit the authority of any one party in the House of Commons. The ruling party will required to consult with other parties and achieve their support before any legislation can be passed. The risk, therefore, is that the various factions of the coalition government will disagree and political stalemate will ensue. Research suggests, however, that the legislative output of hung Parliaments is comparable with that of majority administrations.
Has this ever happened before?
Yes. The last time a hung parliament occurred in the UK was during the 1974 general election when Labour and the incumbent Conservative Party received roughly 47% of the seats in the House of Commons. With the Liberal Party's proportion of seats too small for either party to form a coalition, a follow-up election was called later in the year which allowed Harold Wilson's Labour Party to take power with a slender majority of just 50.2%.