So after a long night which rewarded those like me who stuck with it all the way through by delivering almost exactly the result predicted by the exit polls at 10pm, we now know that Nick Clegg will give David Cameron the first shot at forming a government.
Clegg’s decision to all but offer the keys to Number 10 to David Cameron is very interesting indeed. The Liberal Democrat leader must be bitterly disappointed this morning – in the end it was almost as if the debates that projected him to the electoral stratosphere never happened. He woke up and it was all a dream, which made it far harder for him to swagger around playing kingmaker. However, the decision effectively to cut Gordon Brown off at the knees so early is a surprising tactical move.
One the one hand he can reasonably argue that he is sticking to his promise to give first shot to the largest party. The Conservatives may not have won a majority, but they are indisputably in first place. It would also seem that the Lib Dem’s and Labour alone would be unable to form a majority without other parties so any such contract would look very shaky indeed. On the other hand there were many in his party arguing for a deal with Labour and a promise on electoral reform. Many were urging him to go slow and pointing out that coalition politics is not about the largest party but the largest bloc.
By acting swiftly, Mr Clegg has forced them into line before they can build momentum. He also enables himself to seem principled. Of course, we will have to see the terms and it could all still collapse but Mr Clegg has moved decisively in this matter. It is harder to call the shape of any such understanding at this stage.
The possibility of getting into Number 10 also offers Mr Cameron hope of a respite from what ought to be a pretty nasty inquest in to how he managed not to win this election. He has made big gains – there can be no dispute on that – but many in his party, especially on the right are ready to lash him from snatching defeat from the jaws of victory
The wider result is baffling and fascinating. We cannot be surprised to end up with the result that the polls were predicting for weeks, but somehow it has seemed in the last days that Cameron was gathering some momentum. But the big story of the evening and final days is the solidifying of the Labour vote. Wherever the media signalled a Labour incumbent heading for the defeat, the party seemed to get its vote out, so the Tories notched up some spectacular gains but missed some apparently easy targets. Labour also held firm in Scotland. Whether this was done to good organisation or Mr Brown’s final flourishes is hard to say. The Lib Dem slump also meant they did not take enough votes from Labour to gift certain seats to the Tories.
Oh to be inside Gordon Brown’s head now. Does he really think he can cling on or is he simply bowing under the weight of emotional and psychological pressure from Lord Mandelson and others who don’t care about his future but are battling to keep hold of the levers of power.