But he is one of many observers who believe that expectation may be off the mark. Kellner, whose firm conducts exhaustive surveys on British opinion, likewise considers it more likely than not that the next election, scheduled for May 2015, will produce another hung Parliament. His firm's recent polls have found Labor attracting just under 40 percent of the vote and the Conservatives drawing about one-third. That's more than their combined share in 2010, but still not enough to guarantee a majority for either side. In addition, Kellner says, the historic pattern in which the governing party usually gains support in the final year before the election could move the two major contenders toward something even closer to a tie in the overall vote. Labor must also carry the weight of low ratings for its leader, Ed Miliband. (Miliband was introduced to the public in a Shakespearean swirl of drama: After Labor's 2010 defeat, he was selected as party leader when he unexpectedly challenged, and beat, his more centrist older brother, David Miliband, the outgoing foreign minister who had been the front-runner for the job.) Adding it up, Kellner concludes: "Unless something extraordinary happens, it is very likely we have another hung Parliament. It may be that we are entering a period of some decades where the new normality is a hung Parliament, which has not been the case for the past 80 years."
Tim Farron, a leading Liberal Democrat MP, echoes Kellner's prediction. "When you've got a multiparty democracy, you need one of the two main parties to have a really compelling narrative in order to get a majority — either hope or fear — and now there isn't such a thing," says Farron. "And so that leaves a situation where if there isn't a compelling reason for one to switch to the other "¦ I think there is probably a 60 percent chance of another hung Parliament."
Political analysts and operatives agree that a second consecutive hung Parliament would be a watershed in British politics. In most European nations, notes Riddell, the leading parties assume they will need to compromise and partner with at least one of the rivals they run against. That assumption hasn't yet seeped into the British system, which is still defined by open conflict (symbolized by the raucous weekly jousting of Prime Minister's Question Time). Yet if the 2015 result produces another coalition, Riddell predicts, the two major parties increasingly will be compelled to build "an anticipation of compromise" into their agendas. "If you expect coalition every time, your culture is different," he says.
Already, the operation of this coalition has previewed the changed dynamics by introducing more complexity and negotiation to a system that previously moved a single party's agenda into law with almost mechanized efficiency. On the biggest economic questions, all observers agree, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have locked arms to a surprising extent. Brushing past unwavering opposition from Labor, they have unified behind the core agenda of fiscal austerity shaped by George Osborne, the Conservative chancellor of the Exchequer, the government's chief economic official. Brady, the Conservative MP, is critical of the coalition on other fronts, but on the central tax and spending issues, he says the alliance with Liberal Democrats has been "very solid." Indeed, he says, public support for the agenda has probably increased because it's not just Conservatives touting it. "I think that [fiscal austerity] has been elevated by the coalition," he says. "It has given a remarkable solidity to that position." The result is that, on spending restraint, the coalition has produced "a Thatcherite government" with a record indistinguishable from the one a Conservative-only majority might have amassed, says Bale, the political scientist who studies the party.
The necessities of the coalition have complicated an already fraught relationship between Cameron and the Conservatives' far-right flank, which is growing in influence, as the tea party has in the United States.
But, in other ways, the Liberal Democrats have forced the Conservatives in directions they probably would not have gone alone. Liberal Democrats pressured the coalition's senior partners to exempt more low-income families from income taxes and to scale back a tax cut for the highest earners. Clegg, in his speech to the Liberal Democrat Party convention last September, listed almost a dozen other specific Conservative priorities, including inheritance-tax cuts, education reform, and restrictions on workplace rights, that he said his party had led its partner to shelve. On the environment, he insisted, the Liberal Democrats had fought the Conservative majority "tooth and nail" to "keep this government green." Cameron offered a backhanded acknowledgement of his allies' restraining influence when he recently told a conservative magazine he keeps a "little black book" of policies he would implement if the next election provided him a Conservative-only majority. "I feel very passionately that I want single-party government," he told The Spectator in December. These coalition cracks widened this month when Osborne signaled the government's intention to pursue further large reductions in welfare spending after the next election, and Clegg immediately denounced the proposal as "a monumental mistake."