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Seven Things Everyone Should Understand About the UK Election

05/05/2015 14:44 BST | Updated 05/05/2016 10:59 BST

No one really knows whether David Cameron or Ed Miliband will be the next British prime minister. And anyone who says they do is probably making it up.

On Thursday 7 May, the United Kingdom will hold one of its most unpredictable general elections in a generation. With two days left of campaigning, Cameron's Conservative Party and Miliband's Labour Party are tied in the national polls on 33%.

With that in mind, here are seven things everyone should understand about the campaign and election night.

1. Everyone is going to lose

The traditional 'winner' of a British general election is the party, Labour or Conservative, that secures an overall majority, 326 of the 650 MPs, in the House of Commons. But if the opinion polls are right, that is not going to happen. Despite rather unconvincing protests that a majority is achievable, Cameron and Miliband are both stumbling towards the finishing line and look set to fall far short.

This is largely because the 2015 election is not a straight two-way fight between Labour and the Conservatives. Instead, it is an inter-connected mishmash of local campaigns that also includes the Liberal Democrats, Ukip, the Greens and perhaps most importantly, the Scottish National Party (SNP). Such is the complexity of the battle, the usually impressively accurate exit poll due to be released at 10pm on Thursday night when polls close could be wrong.

In a hung parliament, the man who becomes prime minister will be he who can strike a deal with one or more of the smaller parties to bump up the number of MPs that will side with him on important votes.

For Cameron, his most obvious path back into power is a second formal coalition government with Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats. Miliband, by contrast, appears set to reject a formal coalition. Instead, he will likely try and rule as head of a minority Labour government supported on a loose vote-by-vote basis by Nicola Sturgeon's SNP.

2. Ajockalypse Now: the SNP is wiping out Scottish Labour

The election is close. Very close. And the reason is Scotland. Out of 650 seats in the Commons, 59 are Scottish. Labour currently holds 41 of these. However last year's independence referendum has transformed the political landscape north of the English border. While the SNP lost its bid to break-up the United Kingdom, the party looks set to transform that defeat into a stunning landslide on May 7. One poll even suggested the SNP could win every Scottish constituency. It currently holds just six. This has been dubbed Labour's "ajockalypse".

Without a sizeable contingent of MPs from its Scottish heartland, it is hard to see how Labour can possibly win a majority. Miliband, a close ally conceded, would have won "easily" if it were not for the collapse of the party's support in Scotland. As another senior Labour figure put it to me, a lot of the party's MPs in Scotland, comforted by years of unthreatened incumbency, had become "bloody lazy".

3. Ukip has split the centre-right vote

Until the SNP upended politics in Scotland, the joker in the pack of the 2015 election was Nigel Farage's United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip). The insurgent self-proclaimed "People's Army" that wants Britain to leave the European Union has seriously undermined Cameron's ability to win tight races in England. The party, which keeps having to suspend candidates for saying racist, homophobic and sexist things, won the European elections in 2014.

Despite the bluster, Ukip itself is likely to end up with only a handful of MPs. The real damage done by Ukip to the Conservatives is splitting the centre-right vote in marginal seats allowing Lib Dems or Labour candidates through the middle. Much of the Conservative campaign, and how Cameron has governed over the last two years, has been focused on winning back Ukip voters unhappy with his more liberal approach to conservatism that included legislating in favour of gay marriage.

4. Squeezed middle: The Lib Dems

Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats have for a long time been the third party of British politics. In 2010 the party entered power for the first time as part of a coalition with the Conservatives. At one point during that campaign the Lib Dem leader was more popular than Winston Churchill. "Cleggmania" was a thing.

How the mighty fall. It has been a tough five years for the Lib Dems. The party has seen its largely left-wing base, dismayed at the party leadership's decision to enter government with Cameron, desert it for Labour. In private, Lib Dem MPs agree that clinging on to 30 of their 57 MPs would be more than a good night for the party. One source described the results of internal polling in some seats as nothing less than "horrific".

Clegg's pitch to voters this time is that only his party occupies the sensible centre ground. He will, he argues, be the "heart" to a cruel Conservative government or the "brain" to an economically illiterate Labour administration. In an era of multi-party politics it is a smart approach. The danger for Clegg is that no one is listening to him anymore.

Given the unpredictable nature of this election, the Liberal Democrats could find themselves out of power and embarrassingly demoted to the fourth largest party behind the SNP. Or back in government. Or both.

5. No sleep until June

The results of each constituency will begin to trickle in from the early hours of Friday morning and into the day. However if neither Labour nor the Conservatives win a majority as is expected, it could be almost a month before the make-up of the next government is actually finalised.

In 2010, against the backdrop of financial crisis in Europe, the Conservatives and Lib Dems took just five days to hammer out a coalition deal. However it may not be so simple or quick this time. Even if Cameron and Clegg are willing and numerically able to put together a second agreement, their MPs will demand a greater say in the process. Last time, Conservative MPs were not given the right to formally approve the coalition deal. This time they want a say. Similarly, the Lib Dems, burned by five years in power with the Tories, will not be so quick to sign on again.

As the incumbent prime minister, Cameron has the first dibs on trying to form a government. Miliband may have to wait for days if not weeks before he can formally vote down Cameron's attempt to stay in Downing Street.

6. Election night moments to watch

The symbol of Tony Blair's 1997 landslide victory was the sight of Conservative defence secretary Michael Portillo losing his seat to Labour. The electoral decapitation of a senior party figure has ever since been known as a "Portillo moment". Thursday could see a number of these, with senior figures from all parties facing the chop.

The most high profile casualty could be Clegg. The Lib Dem leader has a hefty majority in his Sheffield constituency. However polls have suggested he is narrowly trailing his Labour challenger in the seat. For the Lib Dems, the loss of their leader on election night would be a humiliation. The party also faces losing its second most senior government minister, chief secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander, to the SNP surge in Scotland.

Ukip also has a problem. Farage currently sits as an MEP in the European parliament not as a member of the British parliament. And despite his huge personal national profile and the sizeable support for Ukip across England, he could very well fail to win his fight to be elected as the MP for South Thanet on the Kent coast. That failure would cost him the leadership of his party.

7. The campaign has been really stupid

The election campaign itself has been one of the most stage-managed in recent times. Party leaders, wary of a single slip up, have largely been confined to speeches and rallies far removed from the voting public. However it has still been really stupid.

Labour painted a bus pink to appeal to women. Miliband carved his election promises, Moses-like, into a giant block of stone. Cameron threatened to use Jiu-Jitsu on Farage during a TV debate and forgot what football team he supported. The Lib Dem campaign chief said "bastards" five times in a row on live TV. The Sun newspaper, hoping no one would notice, endorsed the Conservatives in England and the SNP in Scotland. And Russell Brand's YouTube channel dominated two days of election coverage.

In short. It is a mess.