Uncertainty the only certainty, so get ready for two general elections

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It looks like 2015 will be the year of two general elections, something we haven’t had since 1974.

Opinion polls suggest that the first one – in May – could be messy, with Cameron and Milband short of an overall majority and forced to concoct some sort of deal involving the Liberal Democrats, Ukip, SNP and the DUP. The present odds – albeit not by much – favour Miliband leading an unstable, short-lived government until the autumn.

If that is the outcome then it’s a pretty safe bet that Cameron will be ousted by his party, which hasn’t actually won an overall majority since April 1992. He is neither liked nor loved and isn’t regarded as a vote winner. He will try and play the “vote for Ukip and you get Miliband card,” but that only works if you start with a comfortable lead over Miliband – which he doesn’t.

Nigel Farage’s popularity isn’t simply to do with his own personality and policies (which are pretty ramshackle and vague when put under the microscope); but it has a lot to do with the much more electorally important fact that voters don’t trust Cameron (or Miliband, for that matter) to deliver on either the EU referendum or on immigration numbers.

If Conservative voters are of the opinion that a few months of Miliband is a price worth paying to get rid of Cameron and replace him with someone like Boris Johnson, then it’s a price that many of them will be willing to pay. If that means voting for Ukip, then so be it. The Conservative Party does better when it plays to the ‘right’, particularly when the leader is viewed as one of their own. Cameron isn’t one of their own and never will be. Even the attempt to pretend otherwise will cost the party votes.

Interestingly, there are also an awful lot of Conservative MPs and constituency associations who would like an outcome in May which secures the end of Cameron, while holding the door open to a new leader capable of winning back the Ukip vote a few months later.

Cameron has three possible chances of survival. He may defy the odds (as Major did in 1992) and return with a majority, even if it’s only a slim one. That strikes me as very unlikely. Or Ukip could underperform while the Lib-Dems do much better than expected, leaving Cameron with the option of another coalition with them. His party would run with this (reluctantly) if the alternative were a potentially stable Labour/SNP/Lib-Dem coalition.

Or – and this is where it becomes fun – he may be in a position to concoct some sort of deal with either Ukip or the DUP, or possibly with both.

But would he be willing to pay that price for his own survival? Ukip would demand an unambiguous and immediate in/out referendum on EU membership: something which he doesn’t support (he is, after all, a Europhile) and something that would provoke civil war among his own backbenchers.

And what could he offer the DUP that wouldn’t lead to further problems with Sinn Fein and the stability of the Assembly? Would he be prepared to make himself dependent on Nigel Farage or Nigel Dodds?

I’m also a little surprised by the fact that the DUP seems to be hyping the role it could play as a possible kingmaker in the event of a hung parliament. Peter Robinson and Sammy Wilson were particularly scathing about the UCUNF project (the electoral pact between the UUP and Conservatives) at the 2010 general election, mocking the very idea that a unionist party would be prepared to trust the Conservatives to protect, let alone promote their interests. Yet they now seem to be suggesting that they could cut a better deal than the UUP.

Really? Pacts/understandings between unionists here and national parties rarely deliver. As far back as 1922 Edward Carson accused the Conservatives of using Ulster Unionists as “puppets.”

The UUP got very little from either Labour or the Conservatives in the 1974-79 era; Thatcher betrayed them (even though Molyneaux and Powell were convinced she would never do a deal with an Irish government); Major gave nothing in return for Molyneaux’s support at the time of the Maastricht debacle; and Cameron didn’t, in fact, lift a finger to help the UUP between 2007-10.

I really can’t see what the DUP could extract from Cameron in exchange for their seven or eight votes – particularly since Cameron is, to my mind at least, a unionist in name only.

I actually think that the party facing the biggest challenge in 2015 will be Ukip. The very best they can hope for is a balance-of-power deal with Cameron and I don’t think he will do a deal if it involves an immediate in/out referendum. And – even though it pains me to write this – I suspect that either type of referendum (immediate in/out or a broader one following negotiations between the UK and the EU) would result in a decision to retain membership.

Key Conservative strategists are banking on Ukip winning less than a dozen seats and failing to secure a referendum: allowing them to strike back with the dumping of Cameron, an autumn election and a new leader promising “a referendum and real choice that only a majority Conservative government can deliver”. It can never be good to enter an election with so many from your own side wanting you to lose!