My bet: The Tories will win, but not by enough. So is this what we're heading back to?

Today marks the 13th anniversary of when Tony Blair was first voted into No10 Downing Street. On May 1, 1997, the sun shone, the new prime minister enjoyed huge popular support and Britain was booming.

Unemployment was low, the national debt under control and our international credit sky high.

Thirteen years on and we may be about to get a new prime minister. The circumstances, however, could hardly be more different. 

Winter of discontent: The result of the last hung parliament in the Seventies... rubbish piled up in Leicester Square during the dustmens strike

Despite a strong performance in Thursday's TV debate, David Cameron enjoys little of the popularity or public warmth Blair took for granted.

Worse than that, 13 years of New Labour have utterly destroyed Britain's public finances. The country is borrowing the incredible figure of £500 million a day, with the result that the national debt is set to nearly double over the next four years to £1.4 trillion.

This colossal number, however, gravely understates the scale of the country's economic predicament.

For evidence is emerging that when Gordon Brown was Chancellor, he was an expert at hiding the true scale of our national debt, by not including it in the auditing of the nation's books.

Once 'off-book' items are included, such as public sector pension liabilities (paid out of current revenues) and the debts incurred by the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) schemes (under which private companies build schools or hospitals and are then paid back for years to come by the taxpayer), British indebtedness stretches towards an incredible £3 trillion.

Unless drastic action is taken, Britain will shortly find itself in the same catastrophic position as Greece, unable to raise funds on the international markets.

By far the most urgent task facing David Cameron if he wins on Thursday is to tackle this desperate situation. The trouble is that the Tory leader may be unable to do so because Britain will not merely be facing an economic crisis, but could also be mired in a political and constitutional crisis after election day.

For the opinion polls, while indicating Cameron will become prime minister, strongly suggest he will be the head of a minority government. Though the Tories are expected to be the largest single party in the Commons, they will probably lack an overall majority.

I can reveal this most unsatisfactory prospect has forced Cameron to partially break off from the election campaign in order to hold a series of meetings and telephone conversations with strategists to discuss this contingency.

Advisers have studied the historical precedents - and they make frightening reading. For the truth is that each time there was a hung Parliament in the last century, the result was a nightmare.

In 1910, a hung (or, as the BBC disingenuously prefers to call it, 'balanced') Parliament under the Liberal leader Herbert Asquith saw concessions granted to the Irish nationalists that, amid much bloodshed, accelerated the granting of Home Rule to Dublin.

Twenty years later, this time under the Labour prime minister Ramsay MacDonald, a hung Parliament left Britain incapable of properly confronting the Great Depression of the Thirties.

And in 1974, the most recent time when no party had a clear Commons majority, the legacy of Labour's Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan was a weak government that was impotent to deal with the industrial chaos of the Seventies.

Indeed, when Margaret Thatcher seized the economy by the scruff of the neck after she came to power in 1979, she was able to do so only because she enjoyed a clear Commons majority that enabled her to act decisively.

Aware of the catastrophic history of hung Parliaments, Cameron's advisers have concluded that the best course of action, in the likely event of an inconclusive result on Thursday, is to steer clear of formal pacts or deals with any smaller party.

Therefore, if the Tories end up with most seats, Cameron will endeavour to reject the inevitable offer of Lib Dem parliamentary support that will be dependent on a promise to introduce proportional representation.

His preferred option would be to try to rule as a minority government, pursuing steadfastly Conservative policies and governing in the interests of the nation as a whole.

Of course, Cameron is well aware that such a strategy would be risky.

Labour and the Lib Dems would be able to join together at any time and move a vote of no confidence in his government, thus throwing him out of office and triggering a fresh political crisis.

But if they do so, Cameron would be calculating they would get the blame from the public for making Britain ungovernable at a time of drastic economic turbulence.

Furthermore, Cameron has one trump card: Gordon Brown.

The unfortunate Labour leader has endured a poor election campaign. It is clear that he is no longer physically or mentally up to the task and is hugely unpopular with voters. Indeed, Labour looks set to collapse to one of the worst results in its history, very possibly coming third.

For weeks, senior Cabinet ministers have been plotting against Brown, and last week they decided to act. As the Mail's Political Editor James Chapman reveals today, last week's calamity when Brown crassly labelled an ardent Labour supporter as a 'bigot' has turned out to be the final straw.

The knives are out and senior ministers, led by Jack Straw and Peter Mandelson, are poised to tell Brown he must quit immediately if he loses on Thursday.

The party's deputy leader, Harriet Harman, would most likely take over as interim leader (though there is growing speculation that Alistair Darling might also be thrust into the role) and a brutal battle for the succession is inevitable.

Given the complexity of Labour leadership rules, and the sheer bitterness of the contest, it looks impossible that a new leader will be elected until the party's annual conference in the autumn.

Effectively, David Cameron would have six months of grace when he would be able to lead a minority government, with Labour distracted by a bloody civil war.

Prime Minister Cameron would need to use this time well before Labour eventually regroups under a new leader and is in a position to begin proper discussions with the Lib Dems over a parliamentary pact to try to topple the Tory administration

Of course, all this is conjecture and everything still depends on the will of the electorate. But the following observations can be made with confidence.

Britain has already been plunged into a period of profound economic crisis. By a terribly unlucky coincidence we risk being plunged into a period of political crisis as well.

The only way of avoiding such an outcome is for David Cameron to win the kind of convincing victory on Thursday that will enable him to make the uncomfortable and unpopular decisions need to rescue this country.

Cameron's increasingly strong and statesman-like performance during the election campaign merits such a result. Anything else will be a disaster for Britain.

A chance, at last, to ditch expense cheat MPs

Though many of the worst expense cheats have quit Parliament, a large number of the most heinous offenders are standing for re-election.

They include a number of senior figures such as the Tory Shadow Cabinet minister (and former banker) Francis Maude, who is seeking re-election for Horsham despite claiming nearly £35,000 in two years for mortgage interest payments on a London flat - even though he already owned another house less than half a mile away.

Commons Speaker John Bercow, commander in chief of the expense cheats, is another prime example.

And serial house-flipper Greg Barker - recently singled out for praise by David Cameron in a newspaper article and tipped for ministerial office - is another case in point.

Labour offers up some equally shocking cases. Former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith - who has yet to sue me, even though I repeatedly accused her of fraud in connection with her Commons expenses - is standing again at Redditch.

Disgraced former Cabinet minister Hazel Blears, who claimed for three properties and expenses for bills for several stays at top hotels, is seeking re-election in Salford.

There are some especially repellent Lib Dem candidates. The worst are Sandra Gidley (Romsey); Paul Holmes (Chesterfield); and Richard Younger-Ross (Newton Abbot), who misappropriated large sums of public money in connection with a property development.

Voters face an invidious choice when it comes to such characters and the scores of other expenses cheats standing again on May 6.

On the one hand, we are naturally eager to stand up for the party we support. On the other hand, if we vote for such candidates, we are giving our blessing to disgusting, immoral behaviour.

In this context, three points are worth making. First, bear in mind that all the bent MPs who get voted back into Parliament will claim they have been exonerated by the electorate.

Second, if any private sector employee had fiddled their expenses in such a way, they would very likely have been prosecuted for fraud.

Third, when Nick Clegg, Gordon Brown and David Cameron tell us how shocked and appalled they were by the expenses scandal, they are lying. If they really were shocked, they would not have permitted any of the MPs I've listed to stand in their party's name.

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