On eve of British election, shake-up in Parliament is forecast

A power-sharing deal between Cameron and Nicholas Clegg of the Liberal Democrats ended 13 years of Labor Party rule and resulted in Britain's first coalition government since the 1940s.
By Anthony Faiola and Dan Balz
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 6, 2010

LONDON -- British voters head to the polls Thursday after a volatile and closely contested four-week campaign, with signs pointing to an outcome that could produce the most fragile government in a generation.

Observers fear that the emergence of a divided Parliament in Britain could undermine attempts to slash the country's huge budget deficit and perhaps spark a Greeklike debt crisis. Overdrawn Spain and Portugal already face similar crises of confidence.

Despite the anticipated messiness of the result here, none of the potential winners is likely to bring about a significant shift in transatlantic ties. The major parties have pledged to keep British troops in Afghanistan and to cooperate with Washington on issues from financial regulation reform to the Middle East peace process.

The latest opinion polls put the Conservative Party -- which has been out of power for 13 years -- within reach of a majority in the House of Commons but just shy of enough seats to seal the deal. If the Conservatives fall short, their leader, David Cameron, could still become Britain's youngest prime minister in nearly two centuries, though he would head a minority government susceptible to buckling in the coming months under opposition pressure.

In the closing hours of the campaign Wednesday, Cameron assured voters that he represents the change they are seeking from the unpopular Labor prime minister, Gordon Brown. Portraying the Conservative Party as more "compassionate" -- under Cameron, it has embraced gay rights and "green" policies -- he disputed Brown's claims that it remains the "same old party" of Margaret Thatcher.

"We're never going back," Cameron declared at a rally in Bristol.

Down to the wire

Yet the race for No. 10 Downing St. could shift in any number of directions, potentially being decided by backroom deals that could take days to hash out. In a country defined by tribal politics -- where Labor or Conservative affiliations are as important as one's soccer team -- the political future also appeared to depend on whether millions of Labor voters fed up with Brown would switch their votes or simply stay home.

"The Conservatives are being most effective selling themselves as the best way to get Labor out," said Tony Travers, a political analyst at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

On Wednesday, Brown -- who stumbled badly on the campaign trail last week after he was caught calling a widowed retiree a bigot -- was trying to shore up his campaign. His best shot remained a possible deal with Nicholas Clegg, the dark horse from the perennially third-place Liberal Democrats whose surge in the polls after Britain's first-ever televised election debate has made him a potential kingmaker.

Although support for Clegg appeared to be leveling off, his Liberal Democrats were still on track to make the best showing of any third party in Britain since the 1970s. He began his final day of campaigning in Eastbourne, in southeastern England, pleading with voters to send a message to the establishment. "We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change things for good," he said at a seaside rally.

Clegg brushed aside a question from the audience about the negotiations that might begin if no party emerges from Thursday's vote with a parliamentary majority.

"There are 45 million people in this country who are entitled to vote -- 45 million kingmakers," he said. "I'm not a kingmaker. Not David Cameron. Not Gordon Brown. You're the boss. You tell us what you want. It's your turn to shape the future in the way you want, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise."

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