By Michael Smith.

The UK’s May election looks to be as unpredictable as any since February1974, the first of two that year, which produced the first hung parliament since the second world war, giving Ted Heath’s Tories more votes, though fewer seats, than Harold Wilson’s Labour. They collapsed later in the year.

Polls have long shown the main parties, Conservative and Labour, as virtually tied. That might, just, have allowed Labour to get a majority, because of the way that the electoral system is skewed in the party’s favour but a downward trajectory and the very poor individual ratings of its geekish leader Ed Miliband suggest this is unlikely.

The favourite outcome, as measured by Ladbrokes, is “no overall majority” at the very strikingly poor odds of 2/11 (was 5/6 last October); a Labour majority is 14/1 (was 2-1 last October)  and a Conservatives majority 11/2 (was 4-1 last October). Bet at your peril.

With this in mind, a new coalition might be even more difficult to put together than before; it might take three parties, not two. To understand why, we need to look at the bookies’  best guesses at the overall outcome.

Bear in mind that the total number of seats is 650. The betting companies currently have the Conservatives winning 284.6 (was 273.5 seats last October); down from 303 at the moment. The estimate for Labour is 273.5 (was 306 last October); up from its current total of 257. The Liberal Democrats, the junior party in the current coalition, are forecast to get around  26.5 (was 31.5 last October). The Scottish National Party is in the lead in polls north of the border and is up to a remarkable 43.5 (was 12.5 last October) seats (out of 59). These seats will be at the expense of Labour (the Tories have only 1 Scottish MP). The SNP’s ascent seems likely to leave a Labour/Lib Dem coalition short of an overall majority. Would the SNP join a three-party coalition? It seems likely to demand a very high price. As to Northern Ireland its members, particularly DUP and Sinn Féin have a whiff of sulfur for the English parties. The likely result there is 9 for the DUP, 5 for Sinn Féin, 3 for the SDLP and 1 Independent. The only difference from 2010 is that the DUP is likely to take Naomi Long’s Alliance seat. Plaid Cymru are likely to take 3.5 seats in Wales and the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas will retain Brighton Pavilion for them.

With 650 seats in the Commons, a government needs 326 seats for a majority. So if the odds are right, the only possible two-party government would be a Conservative-SNP coalition which could hold 327.5 seats, a narrow majority of around 1! But if we factor in that the Conservative Party is in fact the Conservative and Unionist Party such a pairing is in fact impossible. Most projections put the Conservatives well short of the 326 seats they would need to form a majority government, and the Lib Dems are unlikely to be left with enough MPs to make up the shortfall, though Peter Kellner, the chairman of YouGuv, has predicted that both the Tories and Lib Dems will do better than most polls are forecasting. He suggests that thrusting if anodyne Cameron will go into the election with a five-point lead over Labour, and that Clegg’s party will secure ten per cent of the vote – thus resulting in 300 seats for the Tories and 30 for the Lib Dems. That would give the current coalition partners a narrow working majority.

A coalition of the right looks harder to pull off. Even if UKIP optimists are proved right, and the party gets 10-12 seats (the bookies are going for 4-6), those seats would probably come at the expense of the Conservatives. It is hard to envisage that leading to a Conservative/UKIP coalition (since that would require an increase in Conservative seats at the same time as a UKIP surge). And the Lib Dems would never sign on to that group.

Punters could be overstating the Scottish impact.  Labour is, of course, set to lose seats, but these will be to the SNP, not the Tories. So every seat that Labour takes off the Conservatives in England will offset two losses to the SNP north of the border in terms of this market. Nevertheless the odds are that Labour will go into government with the SNP or the Lib Dems amounting to a notional 317 or 300 respectively.  If it takes on both it would have 343.5.  Otherwise though the DUP could have apparent enhanced appeal for Labour, its unionism would not be compatible  with partnership with  the SNP.

Narrow odds are available on Labour and Conservative minority administrations – 2/1 and 11/4 respectively.

But the most exciting bet is available from most bookies at around 20:1: Labour/Lib Dems/SNP with 343, nicely overreaching the required 326. •