They seem happy now.

U.K. Isn't Breaking Up But Its Parties Are

Mark Gilbert is a Bloomberg View columnist and writes editorials on economics, finance and politics. He was London bureau chief for Bloomberg News and is the author of “Complicit: How Greed and Collusion Made the Credit Crisis Unstoppable.”
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For decades, the British electorate has swung between two political parties when going to the polls, making the current coalition government an anomaly. After the May 2015 election, however, at least five groups large and small may end up jostling for power. The U.K. may have to become accustomed to administrations between odd bedfellows who never really fancied each other in the first place.

Between the end of World War II and David Cameron becoming prime minister in May 2010, his Conservative Party has been in power for 35 years, versus 30 years for the Labour Party. With neither winning a clear majority four years ago, the Liberal Democrats became kingmakers, largely due to an unexpectedly authoritative and charismatic performance by leader Nick Clegg in a pre-election televised debate among the party leaders.

The shifting sands of politics, however, have not been kind to the Lib Dems in its role as junior partner. It trails with about 6 percent in the opinion polls, the most recent of which was by YouGov for the Sunday Times newspaper. It was all but ignored in speeches at last week's Labour conference in Manchester, and the Conservatives now holding their shindig in Birmingham seem similarly dismissive of its coalition cohort.

The polls put the Lib Dems, which now has 56 members of Parliament, even with the Green Party for the first time in a YouGov poll. And while there's only one Green lawmaker, the tie for fourth place suggests it may be able to improve on that -- with the slim potential that a Green contingent of multiple election winners takes a seat at the table when the complexion of the next government is being decided.

The disruptive newcomer to the U.K. political scene doesn't yet have a single elected lawmaker. Nigel Farage's U.K. Independence Party -- imagine the Tea Party recast as British eccentrics -- has seduced two Conservative politicians into switching sides, though they will both have to seek re-election. UKIP's appeal to disaffected Tories on a platform mixing hostility to the European Union with inflammatory anti-immigration rhetoric puts it third in YouGov's poll, with 15 percent. Although a post-election Labour dalliance with UKIP is unlikely, the Conservative Party's promise to hold a 2017 referendum on the U.K.'s membership in the EU may well be complicated by having to tango with Farage.

The shock waves from Scotland's independence referendum might also reverberate into next year's election. With 45 percent voting in favor of going solo, the six Scottish Nationalists now in Westminster may swell their numbers. That might be blunted, though, as Parliament considers combining increased devolution for Scots while excluding Scottish lawmakers from participating in decisions that don't affect the region.

Labour has consistently led in opinion polls, with about 36 percent to 31 percent for the Conservatives. That's an unusually narrow lead at this point in the election cycle, which may reflect the breakdown in the political duopoly. To be sure, the election is months away and the electorate may drift closer to its historical comfort zone between Labour and Tories. It seems likely, however, that Tory-Labour hegemony won't be in force at the next election.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Mark Gilbert at magilbert@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net