LONDON — With 10 campaigning days left until a general election that has seen a strong and unexpected surge by the left-of-center Liberal Democrats, Britain has been thrust into a complex new political calculus about which party — or parties — will govern after May 6.
Jeff Overs/BBC, via Reuters
Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, during a TV interview on Sunday, just days before Britain’s general election.
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For the first time since the 1930s, the contest no longer seems like a battle for primacy between the Labour and Conservative Parties. With the latest polls showing Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats locked in a tight race, the talk has been increasingly of the possibility of a coalition government, or one in which Liberal Democrats provide the votes needed in the House of Commons to sustain a Labour or Conservative minority administration.
Adding new intrigue to the campaign, much of the speculation this weekend focused on Prime Minister Gordon Brown, not only because of the common perception among political commentators that he has led a faltering Labour campaign, but because his lack of wide support across the country is perceived as making him a major impediment to Labour’s chance of retaining power in a postelection deal with the Liberal Democrats.
After three years in office, Mr. Brown, who has not captured anything like the approval ratings of his Labour predecessor, Tony Blair, finds himself potentially the party’s dispensable man. He has said on the campaign trail that he plans to remain at Labour’s helm even if the party fails to win on election day, and has maneuvered to prepare for a postelection deal with the Liberal Democrats.
But that party’s leader, Nick Clegg, has rejected any pact that would keep Mr. Brown “squatting in 10 Downing Street” after a clear repudiation by the electorate. Mr. Clegg has said that in negotiations to form a new government, the Liberal Democrats would support the party winning the largest popular vote and the most seats. That formula appears to have been drafted in preparation for a deal with the Conservatives.
Reports in several weekend newspapers said this had prompted some senior Labour politicians to talk of dumping Mr. Brown if the party has a weak showing at the polls, and replacing him with someone Liberal Democrats might accept at the head of a coalition, possibly Foreign Secretary David Miliband.
With British elections compressed into a few weeks of hectic campaigning, much can change in the closing days, as Labour found in 1992, when a prematurely triumphal Labour saw a large poll lead evaporate, handing the Conservatives victory. Mr. Clegg has shrugged off suggestions that his party is heading for a historic upset, telling The New York Times in an interview last week that he was not Nostradamus, capable of forecasting the vote.
“I’m not daft enough to put the cart before the horse,” he said.
But recent events have led pundits to say that the Liberal Democrats’ surge in the polls is more than a flash in the pan. The party took 22 percent of the votes in the 2005 election, a high-water mark in nearly a century, since the heyday of the party’s progenitor, the Liberals, who governed for long periods in the second half of the 19th century. They remained a force until they crumbled before the combined power of the Conservatives and Labour after World War I.
Much of the country has been waiting to see if Mr. Clegg can maintain the momentum from his performance 10 days ago in the first of three televised debates with Mr. Brown and David Cameron of the Conservatives. Skeptics in the Labour and Conservative Parties had warned their leaders of the potential for the debates to be a game-changer; as they foresaw, the encounters gave Mr. Clegg — leader of the traditional “third party,” with little in the way of a notable profile before the campaign — an unmatched opportunity to impress.
When the party leaders met last week for the second debate, Mr. Clegg was again judged the most impressive performer in audience polls. Mr. Cameron was found to have performed better than in the first debate, with Mr. Brown, again, lagging. Perhaps more significant, new polls of voters taken over the weekend showed Labour trailing badly, with the Liberal Democrats vying for second place behind the Conservatives, who remained short by some distance of the level of support they need to win an outright majority.
Mr. Clegg’s performance has continued to shape the campaign’s dynamics. Mr. Cameron, the Conservative leader, has stepped up his “Vote Clegg, get Brown” warnings to voters who hope to end 13 years under Labour by voting for the Liberal Democrats. The phrase refers to anomalies in Britain’s electoral system that could allow Labour to finish third in the popular vote and still win the most seats.
Mr. Cameron has told voters they could be shut out of negotiations over a coalition government as the parties’ leaders — whom he has likened to “Tweedledum talking to Tweedledee, who is talking to Tweedledem” — decide who should be prime minister.
Labour strategists, fearful that the middle-class “floating vote” that brought the party three victories under Mr. Blair is deserting them, are facing the prospect of ending up with little more than the core vote of traditional Labour supporters. Political analysts say they make up about 25 percent of all voters. That would represent about 10 percent fewer votes than those cast for the Blair-led party in 2005.
The specter of an electoral collapse of those proportions has pushed Labour to maximize the chances of the Liberal Democrats’ supporting Labour over the Conservatives in the postelection jockeying for power.
Mr. Brown has promised a referendum on changing the winner-takes-all voting system with one that would more closely align the number of seats each party wins with its share of the vote, a priority for the Liberal Democrats since it would mean more seats for smaller parties.
In an election that could be the closest in decades, Labour’s support for a referendum on a new voting system is attracting many Liberal Democrats, since it is one Mr. Cameron and the Conservatives strongly oppose. But Mr. Clegg, from his increasingly critical remarks about Mr. Brown, appears inclined, if anything, to seek a deal with Mr. Cameron ahead of any with Mr. Brown.