At the end of last week’s column, I wrote that the question of whether or not Labour should do a post-election deal with the Scottish National Party would return to haunt Ed Miliband – and promised that in this week’s piece, I would attempt to supply an answer.
Well, I wasn’t wrong about the first bit. The Conservatives have hammered away at the Labour-SNP line so much so that even some of their most senior figures have started to question the tactic.
Former Prime Minister Sir John Major loyally supported the party line by claiming that a Labour government supported by the SNP would be a “recipe for mayhem”.
But Lord Forsyth, who served as Scottish Secretary under Sir John, warned that while talking up the SNP might damage the Labour Party in the short term, in the longer term it would ultimately do more damage to the Union.
The Tories’ attacks increasingly have an air of desperation about them – perhaps unsurprising given that the party is now on its third campaign strategy in as many weeks.
They began the campaign seemingly resolved to focus on the ‘long term economic plan,’ hoping that rising employment and the fear of a return to economic “chaos” under Labour would be enough to get them over the line.
When that failed to give them the clear poll lead they anticipated, David Cameron brought his “happiness agenda” out of cold storage and started talking about “sunshine” all over again with an upbeat manifesto launch promising voters the “good life.”
But the sun failed to shine for long and the Tories soon went negative again, this time playing on the fears of English voters about what Labour might do in coalition with the new bogeywoman of British politics, Nicola Sturgeon.
So what should Mr Miliband do? Well, in one sense, he has already supplied the answer. Offered the prospect of a coalition by SNP leader Ms Sturgeon during the BBC election debate a week last Thursday, Mr Miliband responded “it’s a no, I’m afraid.”
Of course, that didn’t go far enough for the Tories and their allies in the national press, who want to see the Labour leader rule out any sort of parliamentary arrangement with the nationalists.
But in circumstances in which a minority Labour government, perhaps with Lib Dem support, was seeking to get its first Budget through the Commons, the real question is whether the SNP would vote it down in the certain knowledge that the Tories would then be asked to form a government.
The answer, surely, is no - in which case Mr Miliband has already called Ms Sturgeon’s bluff and the SNP leader has no further cards left to play.
The above scenario is, however, crucially dependent on Labour being the largest party on May 8. The Lib Dems remain the favoured coalition partner of both main parties, and Nick Clegg has made clear he will speak to the largest party first.
What, though, if Labour finds itself in the all-too-plausible position of being in second position in terms of number of seats, yet still with the parliamentary numbers to outvote the Tories with SNP support and so lock Mr Cameron out of power?
My view is that Mr Miliband would have very little to lose by making it clear now that in those circumstances he would not seek such an alliance.
Cobbling together a ‘coalition of losers’ might put him in Number Ten for a brief period, but such an administration would fatally lack legitimacy and there would very likely be a terrible price to pay for Labour at any subsequent election.
In strict legal terms, the process of forming a government is about who can command a majority of the House of Commons.
But the rules of engagement have subtly shifted in the course of this campaign, such that it’s really now all about which party finishes with the largest number of seats
If that’s Labour, they will almost certainly have the numbers to govern effectively, given that the SNP would be bound to back them in a confidence vote.
But if it’s the Tories, it all becomes much more complex again – and it’s to that scenario that I will turn my attentions in next week’s final pre-election column.