Anticipating what may happen at the general election often feels like trying to win a game of Risk with an ever-increasing number of players.
Once it was simply a matter of making educated guesses about the success of one opponent over another, or how well one person might fare against an alliance of two rivals.
But recently proceedings have taken on the air of a contest with multiple combatants and multiple agendas. There is no single battle front. The winner of a skirmish at one end of the country could be the loser at the other; an enemy’s advances in a certain region could profit that enemy’s enemy elsewhere.
By way of an illustration, Labour could take seats from the Lib Dems, who might also lose seats to the Tories, but who could themselves lose seats to Ukip, as well as losing seats to Labour, who might also lose seats to the SNP. And so on.
I doubt very much we’ll see one single party doing well right across the country (though I’m sure several of them will try to claim as much).
It’s possible, however, to class the combatants according to the number of their respective foes.
At the moment, two parties stand to be unambiguous winners: the SNP and Ukip. Both will emerge from the election without having lost any seats* and possibly having gained a few more.
There is one unequivocal loser: the Liberal Democrats. The party will not gain a single additional seat and will only shed MPs, in three directions: to Labour, to the SNP, and to the Tories.
Labour probably won’t lose any seats to its historical rival, the Tories. But it may very well lose them to the SNP. It may even lose one or two seats to Ukip. Labour will gain, however, from both the Tories and the Liberal Democrats.
It is the Tories who have the toughest fight, for while they – like Labour – may well lose seats in two directions (in their case, to Ukip and Labour), realistically they have only one party from which to gain them: the Liberal Democrats.
Now let’s say the Tories and Labour each take roughly the same number of seats from the Liberal Democrats.
Then let’s say the Tories lose roughly the same number to Ukip as Labour do to the SNP.
What’s the only calculation left? The number of seats Labour takes from the Tories. Yes, we’re back to the battleground of old.
Suddenly things seem a lot clearer. Maybe the 2015 election is not such a dense thicket of overlapping contests after all. Maybe the outcome will turn, as it has done so many times in the past 100 years, on the swing between the Conservative and Labour parties.
Even if the SNP win more seats from Labour than Ukip do from the Tories, this could be offset by Labour winning more from the Lib Dems than the Tories. And so again we come back to Labour v Conservatives.
Strip away all the smaller parties and at heart 2015 is all about the two big beasts. They won’t be having a titanic battle, however; instead they will be engaged in a very localised scrap over a potentially very small number of constituencies. The prize? The largest party in a hung parliament.
*Note that technically Ukip will go into this election having zero seats, therefore even Douglas Carswell holding Clacton will count as a “gain”.