A bad night for the Lib Dems. After all that hope, a lower seat-count than last time. I believed that the Clegg boost was soft but not quite as soft as it turned out. However, 23% is respectable and we were tanking along on 18% till the debates so Clegg can take small solace from that.
So what now? Mandelson and others are now talking about progressive coalitions and electoral reform. The trouble is that this doesn't produce a majority and, if Clegg accepts, he looks like the ultimate pol. The accusation of a coalition of the defeated would stick and I don't think we should even contemplate it, even with a commitment to PR.
So it's then about the Tories. The truth is that they can govern alone with 310 seats. Given that Cameron will refuse point-blank on voting reform we will probably enter an agreement on deficit reduction and other key stability measures - but something far short of a coalition. Something a bit like the Lib-Lab pact of the late 70s perhaps. While this will keep Nick Clegg out of the Cabinet, it will effectively act as a check on the zanier aspects of the Tory manifesto including their planned gerrymander of the voting system with 500 equal sized seats elected using FPTP.
A Conservative government with some of the rough edges hewn off seems like a fair result to me. They got more votes than Labour did in 2005 and will need to govern with some care to their small majority. Indeed, we might not be their only problem as the influx MPs may be more independent-minded than the people they replaced.
Either way, I believe its Prime Minister Cameron, no seats in the Cabinet for the Lib Dems and a functioning minority government with Lib Dem support on key legislation which we can support (with likely amendment).
Personally I am comfortable with this. From a pure political point of view, I don't think being a very weak coalition partner is sensible as we would end up being blamed for a lot of the future discontent without being the main architect. This government will probably have a hard time at the polls next time and we may be better waiting till 2014 when Labour recover a bit and we can build our position to 80 or more seats. Then go for a deal - probably with Labour - but possibly with a weakened Tory party - in which either will have no option but to give us PR.
But that's going too far ahead. For today, its a Conservative minority government. I am worried, but I also wish them well. We're in a tricky place as a country and we need a year or two of very good steerage.