Westminster will provide a taster of Stormont battle
The General Election here is a dress rehearsal for next year’s Assembly poll. And it promises to be a torrid affair, writes Rick Wilford
Having risen virtually without trace, the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, has reminded us that a week is a long time in politics.
Before the televised debates, Mr Clegg stood in the shadow of his Treasury spokesman, Vince Cable: in their wake he now occupies the centre of the political stage, attracting levels of attention and scrutiny that no Lib Dem supporter could have anticipated.
With opinion-poll support for his party remaining at record levels, the odds on a hung Parliament - the first since February 1974 - have shortened considerably. Is this a threat or an opportunity? And how would such an outcome affect our parties and their tactics?
First, it is worth observing that hung parliaments are not as rare as some might imagine. For 34 of the last 100 years, the UK has experienced coalition or minority rule, the latter being much more common - most recently towards the end of John Major's Government.
More immediately, Scotland currently has a minority SNP administration, while Wales has a Labour/Plaid Cymru coalition and in neither case has the political sky fallen in.
Here, of course, we have the loveless cohabitation that is the four-party Executive which, while subject to inherent stresses and strains, has thus far managed for the most part to contain its centrifugal forces.
In short, across the UK we have experience of a variety of governing models, both in the past and in the present, to draw on as we contemplate the election result.
Let us assume that the election does produce a Parliament in which no party assumes overall control: what role can/should our parties play in that context?
A key factor will be which of the major parties, Labour or Conservative, emerges with the larger number of seats: and be assured that it will be the party with most seats, not votes, which will have the initial opportunity to form a government.
Whichever it is, the first telephone call either Gordon Brown or David Cameron will make will be to Nick Clegg, to try to strike a deal. This could take the form of either a pact on a legislative programme - enabling a vote of confidence on the Queen's Speech, scheduled for May 25, to be secured - or a formal governing coalition.
Alternatively, the major party could decide, or be constrained, to form a minority Government and thereafter engage in the serial business of forging ad hoc and shifting voting coalitions in order to make legislative and policy headway.
While they will have up to 12 days after the election to try to form a government, the media pressure on party leaders to reach an early agreement will be intense. In this feverish context, the local parties will have but a handful of cards to play, few of them trumps.
Labour can rely on (probably three) SDLP MPs plus Lady Hermon to take the party whip, while the Conservatives can count on elected UCUNF candidates.
For their part, DUP MPs intend to act as 'free radicals' trying to extract their pound of flesh in exchange for votes in the division lobbies - perhaps in concert with the SNP and Plaid Cymru - while the four or perhaps five Sinn Fein MPs will be redundant in the task of government formation.
Will the 13 local MPs (or 14 if Rodney Connor takes Fermanagh and South Tyrone) who take their seats emerge as kingmakers? By themselves, no: they have no unanimous preference for either the Labour or Conservative party, each of which is poised to wield the public expenditure axe.
Moreover, they have an eye on next year's Assembly election which, for the major unionist parties, challenged as they are by the TUV, raises the spectre of Sinn Fein's emergence as the largest party.
For Messrs Robinson and Empey, or their successors, that is a much more serious potential political accident in the making than the prospect of a hung Parliament.
For us, the General Election is a dress rehearsal for a torrid Assembly election in little over a year's time: there is much to play for.
Rick Wilford is Professor of Politics at Queen’s University, Belfast