Perhaps
the most fascinating thing about observing a British election is seeing
a genuine three-party system in action. The Liberal Democrats here have
the sort of status that the Greens are trying to achieve in Australia –
but the Greens have got a long way to go. Even though they have no hope
of forming a government, the Lib Dems are treated as a genuine
alternative. And due largely to their anti-war stance, many people seem
to be embracing that alternative: polls show the Lib Dems tracking
around 23-24%, a figure that Bob Brown can only dream about.

Liberal
Democrat strength, however, does not impact equally on the other two
parties: they compete with the Conservatives much more than with
Labour. Almost all of Labour’s marginal seats have the Tories placed
second, but Tory marginals are just as likely to be vulnerable to
Liberal as to Labour. Conversely, Labour threatens hardly any Lib Dem
seats, but the Tories have chances in a dozen or so. The threat to
Blair is not that the Lib Dems will take his seats, but that they will
take enough votes from Labour to deliver seats to the Tories: a threat
significant enough for The Independent (which, despite its
name, behaves like the house organ of the Liberal Democrats) to devote
last Saturday’s front page to dismissing it.

But
despite their strong showing,it’s striking that there’s almost no
discussion in the media here about what would happen if the Lib Dems
emerged with the balance of power. Perhaps that means no-one really
thinks Labour will lose its majority. More likely, I think, is that
Britain’s image of itself as the archetypal two-party system
(historically inaccurate as that might be) makes people unwilling to
confront the possibility until it actually happens.

Not that I
think it will happen this time. I’m writing this without the benefit of
Thursday morning’s opinion polls, but all the data so far suggests that
Labour will be untroubled. Wednesday morning’s Times has the
Tories at their lowest point yet on 27%, compared with Labour’s 41%.
The Lynton Crosby strategy of appealing to the Tory heartland instead
of reaching out to swinging voters doesn’t seem to be paying dividends.
True, such a strategy worked for George W Bush last year – but he was
coming off an (almost) existing majority, whereas Michael Howard’s
Conservatives are starting from a long way behind, and look like
staying there.

There will be a few Labour seats where the Tory
racial themes will bite, and a few more where a growing Lib Dem vote
will put the Tories ahead. But in total I find it hard to see Labour
losing more than about 30 of its 400+ seats, and not all of those will
be to the Tories. The Tories may even go backwards overall, with their
few gains from Labour offset by losses to the Liberal Democrats. The
Lib Dems, currently on 51 seats, should have 70 or more in the new
House of Commons – the highest total for a Liberal Party since 1923.

What
will it mean? If the Labour majority stays above 100 (which represents
a 30-seat loss), it will give Tony Blair a new lease of life, but it
will probably be a limited one. His achievement will be immense, but in
the eyes of his party that will not necessarily outweigh his failings,
most especially the Iraq war. Gordon Brown will still be prime minister
before the next election. If Labour’s losses exceed 50 seats, expect
that changeover to happen within a year.

For the Tories, a third
crushing defeat in a row will raise some fundamental questions about
what the party stands for and where it is headed. But it’s unlikely to
lessen its leaders’ determination to avoid facing those questions.
There is pressure for Michael Howard to stay on as caretaker leader
while the party sorts itself out (assuming he holds his seat, which is
threatened by the Lib Dems), but beyond that the future is murky indeed.