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Last Night's Leaders' Debate Was a Vision of the Clusterfuck That British Politics Is About to Become

It looked like the opening moves of a messy new coalition agreement.

Last night's third live outing of party leaders ahead of the election was notable for the absences from the Coalition party leaders. Or at least David Cameron's non-participation was notable – the Liberal Democrats were only mentioned once in the full 90 minutes. Politics without either Cameron or Clegg felt a bit weird, but the British public may want to get used to that.

Less chaotic than the previous seven-way "mass debate", this opposition leaders' debate generally revolved around the idea of a Labour-led future government with input from the Scottish National Party (SNP). The SNP's leader, Nicola Sturgeon, was a pivotal member of the panel once again – the dedication of 20 percent of the allotted time to a discussion on Trident surely owing to her performance in the previous round, rather than it really being one of the biggest ticket issues going.

If Cameron's ongoing commitment to refusing a head-to-head debate with Ed Miliband is motivated by a fear of making the Labour leader look like a Prime Minister in waiting, then the Tories have dropped a clanger. Sans Cameron, last night looked a bit like a five-way ding-dong between one person who actually has a chance of being Prime Minister, and four other people, some of whom might not even become MPs.

By being cut out of the debate by the broadcasters, the Lib Dems were quite literally put into the same camp as the Tories. Lib Dem Danny Alexander explaining to the BBC afterwards that Clegg had really, really, really wanted to be there, but Cameron wouldn't let him, seemed to sum up the perception of the party in government – Clegg the sulky teenager being told he's not allowed to have any fun by an overbearing dad. As for Cameron, the opposition were able to give him their A-grade trash talk all night and he wasn't there to shout back. This was a huge mistake.

In that context, the conversation seemed less like an attempt to reach out to voters and more like a glimpse of the probable negotiations that will occur after the 7th of May. In this way, perhaps it was appropriate that the Conservatives – and certainly the Liberal Democrats – should be absent. Without them, Miliband dominated the discussion and presented himself as the living embodiment of Blair's "Third Way" between a marginalised and belligerent Nigel Farage and the principled but insignificant Green and Plaid Cymru leaders, Natalie Bennett and Leanne Wood.

While Nigel Farage kept to shoring up UKIP's core vote by dissing the EU, the BBC and even the "very well-picked" studio audience – often to be met either by silence or a lone clapper from the audience – the debate was dragged to the left by Wood and Bennett's anti-austerity tag team. The Greens and Plaid Cymru went into these debates with nothing to lose and have used the opportunity well, if only to disrupt the anti-immigrant consensus maintained the Coalition, the right-wing press and increasingly the Labour party.

But despite an assault from Wood and Bennett making him look like a sell-out to some on the left, Miliband will be satisfied that he largely managed to present himself as the "moderate" choice. It's telling, then, that despite the previous talk of a Plaid-Green-SNP alliance, the SNP's Nicola Sturgeon stood as her own person. She didn't contradict Wood or Bennett, but didn't rally to support them either, beyond a shared anti-austerity message. Where Wood and Bennett snubbed Farage following the debate – and Miliband practically gave him a back rub – Sturgeon shook his hand politely.

Riding a wave of public support following her popularly-opined "win" in the previous seven-way debate, Sturgeon held off trying to persuade non-Scottish voters that the SNP come in peace and this time cut straight to the chase, asking Miliband if he'll compromise with the SNP in the likely event of a hung parliament in order to "lock David Cameron out of Downing Street." With the Tories and Lib Dems out of sight and out of mind, this was the central issue most viewers will have had in mind when they tuned in – and despite the histrionics of the right-wing press, it seemed a popular outcome with the studio audience at least.

Predictably, Miliband avoided further pasting from the patriotic British press by saying he's fighting for a Labour majority, and ruling out a formal deal with the SNP. Can he be for real though? With the SNP on course to claim some 43 seats – many of which will be stripped from Labour – Labour winning outright looks about as likely as Farage jumping ship to the Greens. This puts Miliband in a tight spot. It also makes it likely, given the SNP's position on austerity, that a potential minority Labour government's first budget might need some revisiting to appease a strengthened left-wing of the House of Commons.

What we're about to see is a constitutional clusterfuck. If it's a hung parliament and Labour want to form the next government, some sort of agreement will need to be reached, and it's going to be a nightmare. Cameron has delayed the opening of parliament until the 27th May, meaning there are almost three weeks for negotiations and manoeuvring. In 2010, coalition negotiations lasted five days, but things were simpler: Nick Clegg had already said the Lib Dems would back the party with the most seats, meaning that although Gordon Brown was constitutionally entitled to stay on, there's just no way Labour could have commanded a majority. This time we'll probably see deals being made that politicians have been at pains to pour cold water over.

What this shows is that the first-past-the-post electoral system simply can't handle a multi-party situation. At best, it can function with three – but it was designed for two. Now we're in a situation where the current coalition set-up probably won't work, given the Lib Dems' haemorrhaging support. Even with a few target wins, UKIP are unlikely to make up the difference and prop up a Tory government. Last night Nicola Sturgeon firmly ruled out a deal with the Tories and promised to do what she can to keep Cameron out of power. This puts the spotlight squarely onto Miliband post-election day – much like it was last night. In the debate, we may have seen a portent of the post-election brouhaha to come.

@CraigMcVegas

More of VICE's election coverage:

How to Survive the UK General Election 2015: A Guide for First Time Voters

How Labour Will Win the Election

How the Tories Will Win the Election