By Sam Macrory - 7th May 2010
So David Cameron has made his "big, open, and comprehensive" offer to the Liberal Democrats.
The bartering has begun, and the Conservative Party's failure to secure any sort of majority will have profound implications for the legislative agenda it had set out in the expectation of forming the next government.
However, a number of red lines were made clear by the Conservative leader: Europe, defence, and immigration.
Notably electoral reform did not fall in that category, and Conservative proposals for an all-party inquiry surely fall short of Liberal Democrat expectations.
In 1974, the last time Britain awoke to a hung Parliament, the defeated Tory leader Edward Heath offered Lib Dem leader Jeremy Thorpe a speaker's conference on electoral reform.
It was rejected by the party, despite Thorpe's temptation to join the government.
Clegg's inclination must surely be to demand more, with Gordon Brown appearing to have gone further in making a concrete promise of a referendum.
Nevertheless, Cameron's comprehensive offer has knocked the ball firmly into Clegg's court.
Is this partnership worth it for the ditching of a large bundle of Tory manifesto promises?
Yes, policies will move from in-tray to long grass, but they may only remain untouched until Cameron feels emboldened enough to return to the country in search of a working majority.
Should it progress, the forming of any sort of deal will be a long and messy task.
The Lib Dems will require enough red meat to sell their support of the Conservatives to what will be, at best, a highly sceptical grassroots membership.
Cameron, however, daren't risk losing the support of the traditionalist wing of the Conservative Party.
The election result hasn't strengthened his hand within his party, and those MPs already wary of Cameron and his modernising metropolitan cabal will feel that their voice has been considerably strengthened by his inability to win a majority.
Cameron, in his speech this afternoon, clearly sent a calming message in their direction, but any partnership with the Lib Dems will leave him governing on a week by week basis, with his persuasive skills – which don't seem all that impressive today – needing to be at their best.
Before then, the three non-negotiables appear to be any attempt to soothe the traditional wing of the party.
Cameron will refuse to drop plans for bills proposing compulsory referendums on future EU Treaties and restating the sovereignty of the Westminster Parliament.
As the most pro-European party, the Lib Dems are unlikely to be impressed.
Another major stumbling block will be immigration policy, with a Lib Dem demand that the Tories drop their plans for any sort of official cap likely to be matched by a Tory request to ditch their own concept of an amnesty for existing immigrants. Stalemate, or maybe balanced compromise?
The Lib Dem policy of scrapping plans to renew the Trident nuclear deterrent is also a no-go for Cameron; the Lib Dems are likely to let this pass, but only after prolonged resistance.
Quicker progress will be made elsewhere.
Cameron will have no problem with agreeing to ditch plans to repeal of the Hunting Act, but what of the rural arm of his country?
The party's controversial plans for raising the threshold of inheritance tax is also likely to fall, while the proposed tax break for married couples – though the traditionalist arm will recoil again – another policy unlikely to survive the cull.
On health, the two parties are in disagreement over Conservative plans to create an independent board to run the NHS, described as "simply incredible" and "crazy" by the Lib Dems.
This proposal, hardly an essential part of Tory policy, will surely be scrapped.
ID cards are likely to be shelved, a situation which Labour – aware of public opposition but wary of looking soft on terror – will be happy with, allowing for a pretence at opposition and an opportunity to criticise those parties prepared to jeopardise the nation's security
There are, however, a handful of areas where the Conservatives should be able to make progress.
Most advanced of all Tory policies are Michael Gove's plans to reform the education system, with his vision of free schools at the very heart of the party's vision of a Big Society.
Gove's plans for a pupil premium align with those of the Lib Dems, whose education spokesman David Laws has previously been courted by the Conservative Party.
Further areas of reform that could be rapidly implemented are the right to recall errant MPs and a proposal to axe the number of MPs.
The Tories and the Lib Dems have called for both.
At a local government there is also much common ground on the need to devolve power away from Whitehall, leaving the Tories and Lib Dems surely capable of working in tandem.
However, Tory plans for £6bn worth of cuts to public spending would surely have to be pared back, despite Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg's earlier call for "savage" spending cuts.
The Conservatives' plans for a VAT increase might make it through, with Lib Dem economics spokesman Vince Cable having refused to officially rule out a rise.
In this case, however, the Lib Dem leadership will be wary of being painted as a supporter of what Labour will describe as a regressive tax.
This will all take time, with both Cameron and Clegg aware that they are playing with their own political futures.
For Cameron, any compromise must be weighed up with the enemies he risks creating in the grumbling ranks of his party.
For Clegg, an agreement with the Conservatives will provoke an outcry among many of his colleagues, whatever progress he makes on shaping government policy.
The temptation for Clegg to choose to play a part in forming Britain's future must be huge, but the big stumbling block must surely remain electoral reform.
Cameron's offer is ultimately a set of short term gains for the Liberal Democrats; peaceful coexistence will be of more benefit to the Tory leader than to Clegg, with any progress likely to reflected at the ballot box once Cameron calls that second election.
If the third party is ever going to make that breakthrough, then it must insist upon radical change to the electoral system and not be drawn in to bartering over minor policy tweaks.
The Tory party may be offering considerable compromise, but a promise to make progress on electoral reform is not on the table. The ball is in Clegg's court, but, for now, Gordon Brown is still in the game.
Sam Macrory is features editor of The House Magazine.