/ 3 May 2010

British parties too close to call in election week

Opinion polls on Monday indicated Britain remained on course for a Parliament with no outright majority, raising the rare prospect of a minority or coalition government after Thursday’s election.

David Cameron, the leader of the centre-right Conservatives, had claimed to have the momentum after a strong performance in last week’s leaders’ television debate.

However, surveys on Monday indicated his party’s lead had been pegged back to five percentage points — as much as half their weekend advantage — and suggested either the Conservatives or Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s Labour Party could still win.

The quirks of Britain’s electoral system, where seats are allocated purely by constituency results, and not in proportion to the overall share of the vote, mean that Labour could come third in the popular vote but still remain the largest bloc. The race has been blown wide open by a strong showing from the Liberal Democrats, traditionally Britain’s third party, whose own telegenic leader, Nick Clegg, has challenged Cameron’s claim to be the candidate of change.

Murky waters
If the polls were replicated nationwide on Thursday, it would result in a hung Parliament where no single party has an overall majority, a result last seen in Britain in 1974.

What happens after that is a matter of huge speculation.

The uncertainty could unsettle markets who want swift action to tackle a budget deficit running at over 11% of GDP, although the currency and foreign exchange markets have so far taken the growing prospect of a hung Parliament in their stride.

Monday’s ICM/Guardian poll had the Conservatives on 33%, five points ahead of both Labour and the Lib Dems, with the Conservatives the biggest party in Parliament.

The daily YouGov/Sun poll put the Conservatives on 34%, the Lib Dems on 29% and Labour on 28%, this time with Labour the biggest party.

Government guidelines published in February say that, in the event of a hung Parliament, the incumbent administration can make the first attempt to see if it can command the confidence of the lower chamber, the House of Commons.

That would almost certainly require a deal between the centrist Lib Dems and Labour. However, Clegg has indicated he would be reluctant to work with Brown as Labour leader.

Another scenario has Cameron leading a minority government, daring the opposition to vote down his budget and force another unwanted election.

The Independent newspaper suggested Cameron was planning to defy convention by going ahead with a minority government if he won the election.

“There is convention and there is practice, and they are not always quite the same thing,” he was quoted as saying.

A shadow Cabinet minister was quoted as saying the party would not need a coalition deal if it had the support of a handful of Northern Irish unionists for key pieces of legislation. – Reuters