OPINION: In two weeks' time, Britons go to the polls.
On May 6, they must decide if they want another five years under Labour, and Prime Minister Gordon Brown, or to throw in their lot with his rivals, the Tories' David Cameron or the Liberal Democrats' Nick Clegg. Until last week, opinion polls showed the Conservatives at or about 38 per cent, Labour about 31 per cent and the Lib Dems on about 20 per cent. Things changed markedly, however, last Friday.
That was when party leaders engaged in the first of three live TV debates, a first in Britain. Opinion polls since show a remarkable shift. This week, a Populus poll for The Times, for example, showed Mr Clegg's party had risen 10 points in a week to 31 per cent, Labour down five on 28 per cent, and the Tories down four on 32 per cent.
Britain still uses first-past-the-post. So it is feasible that the Lib Dems, like Social Credit here in the 80s, will draw a sizeable proportion of the vote, but few seats. But if current polling turns into an election-night result, the United Kingdom might be in for its first coalition government in decades.
Excited at the prospect, Mr Clegg is exhorting the under-45s, where much of his support seems to be based, to enrol, then vote. He is doing his damnedest to capitalise on voters' anger at last year's parliamentary expenses scandal, which Speaker John Bercow has said "inflicted as much damage on the Commons as the Luftwaffe".
Although Mr Clegg is delighted at the position he now finds himself in, grandees in both the old parties are horrified, as they scurry to not only seek silver linings from the TV debate fallout – there are few – but also to tip voters back their way before polling day.
Until the first of the three TV debates, Mr Cameron and the Tories were leading Mr Brown and Labour by a shrinking margin. Many observers are still mystified by what the Conservatives stand for, given that the party has changed its policies several times in the past year to attract more votes, and wondering aloud how it could be faring so poorly when the Government is presiding over a recession and consequent borrowing of staggering proportions.
Even if the Lib Dems do not do major damage to the Tories on May 6, Mr Cameron's party reportedly needs a national swing greater than any modern leader has achieved, in order to win even a single-seat majority.
To tackle that reality, Mr Cameron's backers – including Lord Ashcroft, the man who put up the reward for the stolen Waiouru medals and is funding CrimeStoppers here – have been pouring money into marginal electorates, particularly those where Labour at present has only a 5 to 10 per cent lead.
Whether that kind of support has been a help or a hindrance – Lord Ashcroft, for example, has embarrassed the Tory leadership by reneging on a promise to change his tax status to one of a resident Briton, not a tax exile – only the results on May 7 will tell.
But The Independent newspaper – one of the few that is not tribal Labour or Tory – is picking that, for once, the 2010 election is a true three-horse race with the genuine prospect of a hung parliament. What fun.
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