Ed Miliband likely woke up Monday morning wondering if he'd lost the election for his Labour Party by engraving his political ideas on a giant stone tablet. Hours later, he could be forgiven for wondering whether his chances of becoming Britain's next prime minister had been saved by a comedian who had previously urged his millions of followers never to vote.
Yes, the United Kingdom's 55th general election campaign is as absurd as that sounds. Most of what Nigel Farage, leader of the radical U.K. Independence Party, says is controversial, but few here disagreed with him when he pronounced the race that ends Thursday to be "the worst general election in history."
Mr. Farage wasn't even referring to the chaos that could follow the May 7 vote. With Labour and the Conservatives locked in an effective dead heat – each expected to win about a third of the popular vote – all nine of the country's major pollsters are forecasting a hung parliament. That's expected to be followed by a prolonged period in which Mr. Miliband and Conservative leader David Cameron compete to form a workable majority in the 650-seat House of Commons by reaching out to suddenly influential players like UKIP, which wants to take Britain out of the European Union, and the Scottish National Party, which wants to pull Scotland out of the U.K.
Mr. Cameron has served as prime minister since 2010 at the head of a coalition between the Conservatives and the centrist Liberal Democrat Party.
Mr. Farage's criticism was targeted at the way the six-week campaign has been run, with its heavy emphasis on personalities and style, and little in the way of substantive debate about proposed policies.
Take the fall and rise in Mr. Miliband's fortunes over the past 48 hours. On Sunday, the Labour leader was pilloried on pub stools and on social media after unveiling a 2.6-metre slab of stone inscribed with six vaguely-worded statements that would purportedly be core principles of a Labour government. He promised to erect the stone in the rose garden behind No. 10 Downing Street should he become prime minister.
Conservatives and their supporters howled with laughter, immediately dubbing the proposed garden ornament "the Edstone." Labour backers loudly worried that Mr. Miliband – who was already struggling to connect with ordinary voters – had finally proven himself too much of an oddball to be seen as prime ministerial.
"There isn't a single sentient being with connecting synapses anywhere in any planet in any universe who could think [the stone tablet] was a good idea," political columnist John Crace wrote on the front page of Monday's Guardian newspaper, which had just endorsed Mr. Miliband and the Labour party as the "best hope" for the country.
Like others, Mr. Crace compared the overconfidence implied by the stone tablet to a triumphalist speech given during a similarly close 1992 campaign by then-Labour leader Neil Kinnock. Many believe Mr. Kinnock's hubris – he was introduced to a rally in Sheffield as the "next prime minister" – cost Labour the election, helping the Conservatives and party leader John Major win a majority government.
But before the story of Mr. Miliband's great gaffe was even 24 hours old, he may have been bailed out by the most unlikely of saviours.
A week ago, Mr. Miliband took the gamble of agreeing to be interviewed by Russell Brand, a popular comedian who has waded into politics by attacking the entire system as run by and for Britain's elites. Mr. Brand infamously said that he saw no point in voting.
Mr. Miliband's gamble may pay off by helping mobilize young voters, who polls show lean heavily towards Labour although they are the age group least likely to cast ballots. Mr. Brand, whose Twitter account has 9.6 million followers, released a video on Monday calling for supporters to "vote for revolution" by supporting Mr. Miliband and Labour.
"You've gotta vote Labour. You've gotta get the Conservative Party out of government in this country so that we can begin community-led activism, so that we can be heard continually on housing, on poverty, inequality, on work," Mr. Brand said in a YouTube video. "I think this bloke will listen to us," he added, referring to Mr. Miliband.
Mr. Cameron has dismissed Mr. Miliband's courting of Mr. Brand as "a joke," and it's far from clear how many among the comedian's Twitter horde actually look to him for political advice.
The risks Mr. Miliband has taken in the last days of the campaign contrast with the Conservative leader's ultra-cautious approach. Apparently trying to look busy and prime ministerial, Mr. Cameron has avoided unplanned encounters with voters (and journalists), and he has refused several invitations to debate one-on-one with Mr. Miliband.
The Conservatives are running on the argument that the economy has improved over the last five years – it's now the fastest-growing in the G-7 – saying they need to be rehired to ensure the recovery continues. Labour counters that only the rich have benefited from Conservative rule, with Mr. Miliband promising new taxes on the country's wealthiest citizens to help pay for more investment in the National Health Service and other social programs.
That neither side has captured the imagination of the electorate is highlighted by the rise of parties like UKIP, which is forecast to win an unprecedented 13 per cent of the national vote, and the SNP, which is expected to come close to sweeping all 59 seats it is contesting in Scotland.