Can't get there from here?
So did we win, or what?
Because the aim was a hung parliament, and we got just about the hung-est parliament possible. The Tories need the Lib Dems to form a majority, Labour needs nearly everyone to form a majority, and the smallest parties could yet have the crucial say. Wow, that's hung. But what now?
The parties who will determine what happens over the next few days (or weeks) have varying agendas, and the simplest way of illustrating what those agendas are and why is with this diagram:
The chart shows exactly why the two main parties are so terrified of the UK having a proper electoral system which actually reflects the balance of voters. The current First Past The Post method vastly over-represents the big two, in this particular instance handing the Tories an extra 71 seats which their actual votes don't merit, and Labour an extra 70. Most of those come from the Lib Dems, who get 92 seats fewer than their votes should have earned.
(The effect is magnified by the phenomenon of tactical voting, in which people who actually want to vote for one party vote for another one, because they live in a "safe" constituency where there's no chance of anyone but the big two winning and so they vote for the one they dislike the least in order to keep the other one out.)
Because the two big parties like this system just fine – as it favours them so remarkably unfairly – the chance to change it via democratic means comes along once in a generation, if that. This year is one of those opportunities, which means that – even if it doesn't look like it – the country is at this very moment engaged in a power struggle that's as dramatic and potentially revolutionary as has ever been seen in these islands.
So what are the various parties trying to achieve?
1. THE CONSERVATIVES
Above all else, the Tories don't want to serve in a minority OR coalition government. They've waited through 13 years of Labour, and as far as they're concerned it's simply their turn to wield 100% power over the unfortunate inhabitants of the UK on the basis of barely one-third of the vote, as Labour have been doing since 2005 when they secured an absolute majority with the lowest winning share of the vote ever (just 35.3%).
Furthermore, the issues that matter most to both Tory MPs and Tory voters are Europe and immigration, precisely the two things that a Lib Dem coalition partner would throw a great big spanner into the works of. As far as most Tories are concerned, governing with the Lib Dems isn't governing at all.
The Tories have one huge advantage over Labour and the Lib Dems – money. They poured cash into campaigning in marginal seats this year, thanks to wealthy donors like Lord Ashcroft, and it paid dividends, helping them to win many seats that people didn't expect them to. And the crucial thing is, they can afford to do it again.
The other two main parties can't. Labour is stoney broke, and this campaign stretched its resources to their absolute limit. The Lib Dems simply never had any money in the first place, and already have to campaign on a shoestring. Having to fight another election within months would be a financial catastrophe to both of them, and the result would almost certainly be a further swing to the Tories and a clear majority.
That's the background which informs Cameron's reluctant and half-hearted overtures to the Lib Dems yesterday. While professing to seek unity, he basically offered them nothing, demanded that the Tory manifesto be implemented almost in its entirety, and tried to fob them off with a useless talking shop on electoral reform rather than action.
By offering the Lib Dems so little, and doing it so publicly, Cameron knows perfectly well he's making it almost impossible for Nick Clegg to accept this deal even if he wanted to. He might as well have saved the nation some valuable airtime by walking on stage, saying "Hey Clegg! We want you to come and be our bitch" and walking off again.
The Tories' main goal during the hung-parliament discussions is to bring about another election as soon as possible, because they believe, probably rightly, that it will return them a workable majority, either by themselves or with their lapdog Ulster Unionists.
The vital thing for them, then, is simply to look as if they're genuinely trying to put a coalition together (which they're not, unless Clegg IS so amazingly gullible or craven that he'll hand them one without PR), so that the electorate will blame the Lib Dems when it fails, and punish them rather than the Tories for forcing the country to the ballot box again.
(The only other option for Cameron is to concede an early referendum on PR as the price of Lib Dem support, then count on persuading the nation to vote against it, by fair means or foul. But that's incredibly high-risk, and he'd have a hard time getting his own party to accept such a deal.)
The Labour Party can't quite believe it still has a chance of clinging onto power. Just a few months ago the opinion polls were indicating a massive swing to a Tory landslide, but the desperate policy of printing £200bn in imaginary money bought Labour just enough time to make the economy's pulse flicker briefly back to life at the right moment.
They still expected to lose, and their disbelief at still being in the game was reflected in Brown's proposal to the Lib Dems, in which he basically offered them anything they wanted if they'd support his party rather than Cameron's. A full-blown referendum on proper proportional representation (not the dismal Alternative Vote fudge that Brown was proposing before the election) was placed very prominently on the table, something which most Lib Dem MPs and voters would probably bite Brown's hand off for in an instant.
The main stumbling block for Clegg is likely to be Brown himself, who he can't stand. (The vicious response that supporting the unpopular PM would provoke from the overwhelmingly right-wing press, which is already furious that voters haven't returned a Tory majority, wouldn't help either.) But numerous Labour sources have already been carefully nudging into the public arena the likelihood that the PM will resign as soon as is decent in the event of a deal with the Lib Dems.
Labour's best hope of staying in power is an agreement (probably secret, but maybe even in public) whereby the Lib Dems will support them long enough to pass the PR referendum bill, at which point Brown will resign and a new election will be called, presumably under PR.
(The gamble there, of course, being the assumption that the electorate will have voted for it in the referendum.)
The outcome of that election would likely be a parliament in which Labour and the Lib Dems could command a secure centre-left (ish) progressive majority, because between them the two parties garnered almost FIVE MILLION more votes than the Tories. (Although you wouldn't know it from reading the newspapers or watching TV, the UK electorate as a whole is considerably more left-wing than any of its major parties.)
This would freeze the Tories permanently out of power unless they shifted their policies sufficiently in the future as to tempt the Lib Dems to switch partners, an outcome which works in favour of both the Lib Dems and Labour.
3. THE LIBERAL DEMOCRATS
Nick Clegg is probably the most right-wing leader of the Lib Dems in the party's history, and may well be instinctively inclined to do a deal with David Cameron. However, the party's constitution obliges him to obtain the support of 75% of its MPs for any agreement, and the Lib Dems' membership (including MPs) is broadly speaking far more sympathetic to the idea of working with Labour than getting into bed with the Tories.
So Clegg has to choose between three options.
(i) Support the Tories. What happens under this coalition? Loads of unpopular cuts. How does it help the Lib Dems to be associated with those? If the cuts put the country back in recession, the Lib Dems get much of the blame for making the Tories kings. If the cuts solve the deficit problem, the Tories will get the credit because they're Tory policies, and at the next election people say "Well, the Tories were right, they obviously know their stuff, so we don't need the Lib Dems now".
Either way they're out in the cold, and in an electoral system that's now even more biased against them. (Because the Tories main plan for political reform is to fiddle constituency boundaries – as part of their policy of reducing the number of MPs and making all constituencies of equal size – so that they're even more unfair to the other parties.)
(ii) Do nothing. Reject both offers, sit back, let the Tories make unpopular cuts in a minority administration, then when the recession's back by the end of the year, pull the rug from under the now-hated government in a no-confidence motion and hope to get returned in a better position for an alliance with Labour – which by then will be led by someone less toxic (and probably more liberal) than Brown.
The problem with that strategy is that voters will say "We voted Lib Dem last time and they just sat on their arses and did nothing. I'm not wasting my vote on them again", everyone goes back to the big two and they're left back in the dark ages of <20% support and about a dozen MPs.
(iii) Try to make it work with Labour. As we've already seen, Brown is so desperate he'll give them pretty much anything they want, so there's scope for short-term gains as well as the cherished goal of PR. While the PR bill goes through (with the willing support of the nationalists and SDLP giving it a majority), the interim coalition as discussed above could continue with the current economic stimulus policies – whether they're the right thing or not, they'll avoid pissing people off with brutal cuts for a few months.
In that election, implementing PR should prove popular with voters and increase the vote for both partners. But even if the Lib Dem support were instead to suddenly collapse in half for some reason, under a proportional system they'd still end up with far more MPs than they have now, and in a political system that pretty much ensures they always hold a share of power. The Lib Dems basically can't lose once they get PR.
So it's pretty obvious which course holds the greatest prize for the Lib Dems. Unless Clegg gets tempted by the shiny bauble of being Home Secretary or something in a Con-Lib coalition (and can get that urge past 75% of his party), coming to an arrangement with Labour basically offers the Lib Dems everything they've ever strived for.
The hitch, of course, is that any Lab-Lib pact doesn't add up to a majority, and also needs the support of just about every other unaligned party in the Commons to form a government in the first place. The SDLP's three MPs already take the Labour whip, so they shouldn't be much of a problem. And the SNP and Plaid Cymru are extremely supportive of PR, which would likely give them both far more seats and influence, so it shouldn't be too tricky to get them onboard in the interim government either, even if all bets were off after that single issue was dealt with.
Those parties supply an extra 12 MPs, which takes the total to 327 and provides a small margin of error (as the five Sinn Fein MPs don't take their seats, meaning the actual number required for a majority is 323. But the danger is that it only needs two rogue MPs somewhere in the coalition to make trouble for everything to be scuppered.
That's quite a long shot, however. The SNP and Plaid have such a large vested interest in getting PR through that they'd probably agree to support the bill without even demanding any concessions. The same goes for the Lib Dems and Labour (whose handful of diehard FPTP supporters will be whipped to within an inch of their lives), so the only potential banana-skin is the SDLP, who aren't discriminated against by FPTP and therefore might try to extract something in return for their backing.
But PR is so much in the Lib Dems' permanent interests, and Labour's temporary ones, that almost any price the SDLP could plausibly demand would be worth paying to secure it. And in such a way might the United Kingdom achieve a democratic revolution as radical as anything ever brought about with guns and bombs.
The only man who can screw it up is Nick Clegg. Keep your eyes fixed on him.