In the few days since Conservative defector Douglas Carswell gave Ukip its first Westminster MP and John Bickley scared the pants off Ed Miliband by almost snatching Heywood and Middleton from Labour, there has been much talk of a broken mould and a new age in British politics.
Election geeks have posited half-a-dozen or more governing permutations in the event that Ukip makes big gains next May. Among the more obvious are these: A Labour majority, facilitated by Ukip gains from the Conservatives (Cameron’s bedtime with Farage and reveille with Miliband); a Conservative majority in the event that Ukip take from both parties and the LibDems are erased; a repeat of the current Conservative-Lib Dem coalition; or a Labour-Lib Dem coalition, in the event that the Lib Dems retain a sufficient number of seats to help either party to an overall majority.
But the possibilities do not end here. Also possible could be a minority government formed by either of the big parties, which could be the result if – say – the Lib Dems have lost the appetite for governing or have too few seats to make up a coalition alone. A ‘rainbow’ coalition, with Labour linking up with the Lib Dems and/or the Greens and even, maybe, the Scottish Nationalists. Or – perhaps the most obvious, and desirable, to certain Conservatives, if Ukip gains more than a dozen or so seats – a Tory-Ukip coalition (or some less formal ‘understanding’).
What no one has mentioned, however, is a German solution – a ‘grand coalition’ of Conservative and Labour that leaves the fringe parties on the fringe and governs from the centre – which is, after all, the territory that a majority of voters inhabit. A Conservative-Labour coalition might seem to go completely against the grain of Britain’s adversarial politics. But it has been observed time and again in recent months that Cameron, Miliband (and Clegg) have a significant amount of political ground in common. Centre-left and centre-right are not so very far apart.
I am not convinced that Ukip will necessarily replicate its recent success at a general election – people vote differently in by-elections. But let us say that Ukip cuts a swathe through both main parties in May, and let us say, too, that Cameron (or his successor) cannot bring himself to ‘ get into bed’ with Nigel Farage, then, a “grand coalition” made up of the shrunken parliamentary Conservative and Labour parties could be an option.
Such an eventuality could, of course, trigger defections among right-wing Tories and left-wing Labourites. But this might be no bad thing, giving the UK a wider party political spectrum and parties less divided against themselves. That really would be breaking the mould.