Britain’s Liberal Democrats (Lib Dems), normally the country’s third-largest party, seized the initiative in the election race just weeks ahead of the May 6 vote, as fresh polls yesterday showed their ratings soar.
The surge in support for the Liberal Democrats follows what commentators and surveys found was a strong performance by their leader Nick Clegg on Thursday in the first-ever televised election debate between Britain’s party leaders.
A BPIX poll in the Mail on Sunday newspaper put the Lib Dems up 12 percent over the past week to 32 percent, with the Conservatives down seven at 31 percent and Labour down three at 28 percent.
BPIX surveyed 2,149 people over Friday and Saturday.
Such figures make a hung parliament and a rare coalition government increasingly likely.
Under Britain’s electoral system, such a result could see British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his governing Labour Party end up in pole position — despite coming third in the popular vote.
The BBC’s electoral seat calculator indicates that those figures would still result in 276 seats for Labour — 50 short of a majority; 226 seats for the Conservatives and 119 for the Lib Dems.
Clegg said “something exciting is happening” in the British political system, which has seen the Conservatives and Labour trade power for the best part of the last 100 years.
“A growing number of people are just starting to believe that we can do something different this time,” he told Sky News television.
Bob Worcester, founder of pollsters MORI, wrote in the Observer: “Up to now this election has been static; now it’s electric ... Before last Thursday’s debate, the Liberal Democrats were a sideshow; now they are centre stage.”
The main opposition Conservatives — consistently leading in the polls for more than two years — now face a major fight to stop the crucial floating voters they need from switching support to the Lib Dems.
Conservative leader David Cameron urged voters to give his center-right party a “decisive” mandate to tackle Britain’s huge debt.
“Is another five years of Gordon Brown going to get that job done? He’s had 13 years and he is making things worse,” Cameron told activists in Gloucester, southwest England. “Is a hung parliament going to get that job done? A hung parliament would be a bunch of politicians haggling, not deciding.”
Conservative finance spokesman George Osborne said while Clegg had put in a “good television performance,” the Lib Dems would now face the “real scrutiny of their policies they have avoided for so long.”
Other newspaper polls showed a huge leap in Lib Dem support.
A YouGov poll in the Sunday Times put them up 11 points over the week, reaching 29 percent — their highest for nearly 30 years, the broadsheet said.
The Conservatives dropped seven points to 33 percent, with Labour down two points to 30 percent. YouGov questioned 1,490 people on Friday and Saturday: after the debate.
ICM research for the Sunday Telegraph put the Lib Dems up seven points since Tuesday last week, on 27 percent, with the Conservatives on 34 percent and Labour on 29 percent. ICM questioned 1,033 peopled on Wednesday and Thursday.
And a ComRes poll of 1,006 people for the Sunday Mirror/Independent on Sunday showed the Lib Dems up 8 percent to 29 percent, the Conservatives on 31 percent and Labour at 29 percent.
BBC political research unit editor David Cowling said the polls showed an “extraordinary shift” in Lib Dem support.
“We have no historical comparisons to help us judge whether this turbulence will now dominate the campaign or whether on polling day far fewer people change their votes because of the debates than say they might now,” he said.
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