As this blog never tires of saying, a week is a long time in politics. And it will probably be over 30 weeks until the next Westminster elections – most likely in May 2010.
So predictions at this stage are highly unreliable, but that does not stop people from making them. This week The Economist has thrown a pebble in the pond in an article in which it points out that:
" ... the government looks doomed and the opposition, for all its poll leads, needs an electoral swing of 7% to win just a one-seat majority. A hung parliament remains possible, and with it a suddenly pivotal Mr Clegg. His professed goal of becoming prime minister is fanciful. The prospect that he will hold the balance of power is not."
Most opinion polls, however, give the Conservatives a commanding lead, with a majority of around 90 seats.
Nonetheless, The Economist's prediction has some resonance in other quarters – for the Tries to win a majority at all, let alone one of 90 seats, would require a swing of an almost unprecedented scale. While David Cameron appears now to have the wind in his sails, the pressures and pitfalls of an election campaign – not to mention the 'unknown unknowns' and "events, dear boy" – may well change things.
The implications for Northern Ireland's parties are considerable. If the Tories do get their swing, and their majority, then Northern Ireland's 18 MPs remain irrelevant and marginal. But if The Economist is right, and neither large British party has a majority, then whoever else has a handful of seats can become a powerful kingmaker. Obviously the Liberal Democrats would like that to be them, but if the electoral arithmetic allowed it, the DUP could hold a crucial balance of power. The UUP, if they win any seats, would have already been 'banked' by Cameron, so their power would be small, and Sinn Féin will not attend Westminster under any present circumstances, so the DUP could find themselves being courted by both sides.
The DUP, of course, while making suitably 'British' noises, will exact a price that benefits only their own tribe – the Ulster Nationalists. Any such price would upset the careful balance in Northern Ireland and could set politics back by years. So, perversely, it may be a good thing for nationalism, for Northern Ireland, and for the continuation of the institutions if the Conservative Party achieves its comfortable majority next year.