Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg is coming under increased scrutiny over his support for the euro and easing jail sentences after his surge in polls turned the British campaign into a three-way race before the May 6 vote.
A YouGov Plc survey this week showed most voters oppose those positions, as well as Liberal Democrat policies that would cede more powers to the European Union, grant amnesty to some illegal immigrants, ban atomic-power plant construction and cut the nuclear arsenal.
“The policies that are going to be their weakness are Europe, crime and immigration,” said YouGov pollster Anthony Wells. “There are a chunk of people who say they will vote Liberal Democrat but don’t actually like some of their policies.”
Clegg’s April 15 debate performance against Conservative leader David Cameron and Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown led to his surge in the polls. In tomorrow’s second debate, he’ll likely be attacked by Cameron, 43, the front-runner until recent days. Brown has benefited, with estimates showing the three-way race may give him a plurality in the next Parliament.
A Populus Ltd. poll for the Times of London released last night showed the Liberal Democrats climbing 10 points over the past week to 31 percent. The Conservatives fell 4 points to 32 percent and Labour dropped 5 points to 28 percent. The poll was conducted April 18 and yesterday, the newspaper said. Populus questioned 1,501 voters. No margin of error was published.
The divided Parliament that would result from this close a vote may roil markets, because a government without a majority would be too weak to narrow a record budget deficit, some economists say. The pound slumped 1 percent in the two days after the debate last week. It has lost 5 percent against the dollar this year and traded at $1.5385 at 12:31 p.m. in London.
Fifty-five percent of voters who told YouGov in a separate poll this week that they’ll vote Liberal Democrat said they didn’t agree with proposals to give the EU more say over judicial matters, bank regulation and climate-change policy. Fifty-three percent oppose ditching the pound for the euro when conditions are right.
The Liberal Democrat policy of allowing criminals sentenced to less than six months to do community service was opposed by 37 percent of self-described Liberal Democrat supporters.
‘Shine a Spotlight’
“Until the end of last week, no one was taking any notice of the Liberal Democrat policies,” Philip Hammond, who speaks on the economy for the Conservatives, told Sky News. “Now we need to shine a spotlight on those policies so people understand what Nick Clegg stands for.”
Conservative business spokesman Ken Clarke, a former finance minister, told a press conference in London today that sterling would “wobble” and “bond markets won’t wait” for discussions between the parties if the election doesn’t produce a clear outcome.
He attacked Clegg’s plan for a “mansion tax” on houses valued at more than 2 million pounds ($3.1 billion) and recalled an agreement in the late 1970s under which the then Liberal Party supported James Callaghan’s Labour government, which had lost its majority in the House of Commons.
“It was a farce, it was a fiasco, Clarke said. “It didn’t save us from disaster. I’d be very, very alarmed if any prospect of that occurred on this occasion.”
Labour, which has governed for 13 years, is also seeking to highlight Clegg’s less popular policies, though pollsters suggest Brown will benefit more than the Conservatives from the growth in Liberal Democrat support because of the way electoral districts are distributed across Britain.
Brown, 59, has begun to attack Liberal Democrat plans not to replace the submarine-based Trident nuclear-weapons system and for an amnesty for illegal immigrants who have been in the U.K. for 10 years.
Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling said in an interview yesterday that some Liberal Democrat budget policies are “pretty flaky.”
In an interview with today’s Independent newspaper, though, Brown said he wanted to see a “progressive alliance” of Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters to keep the Conservatives out of power.
In Oxford East, the Liberal Democrats are trying to overturn a 1,000-vote Labour majority in a district of around 70,000. Clegg may benefit from a none-of-the-above vote against two parties that have dominated British politics for 90 years.
‘Exactly the Same’
He has sought to lump Brown and Cameron together, casting himself as an agent of change. “The more they attack each other, the more they sound exactly the same,” Clegg, 43, said of them in the debate last week. “We can do something different this time.”
Clegg attacked Brown’s overtures at a news conference in London this morning. “There is something frankly desperate about a Labour Party and their leader Gordon Brown who now tries to present themselves as agents of reform and progress, when for 13 years they have been a stubborn block to reform and progress,” he said.
“People can call people what they like,” Brown told reporters in Cardiff, Wales. “I would prefer to talk about the policies, the substance and that is what I believe it all comes down to.”
Chris Underhay, 26, an unemployed would-be screenwriter in Oxford, said he plans to vote for the Liberal Democrats, even though he says he doesn’t know much about their policies.
“I pretty much decided after Thursday’s debate,” he said. “I don’t know their policies very specifically. I just like the idea that they’re for open politics. I haven’t had a look at their manifesto, but I heard it’s got actual numbers at the back of it. I like that.”
The 108-page Liberal Democrat program contains four pages detailing a tax overhaul and plans to cut the deficit. Neither the Conservative nor Labour manifesto contains such tables.
The Liberal Democrats’ main tax pledges are supported by 81 percent of people who say they would vote for the party. They would raise the annual threshold for paying income tax to 10,000 pounds, a step the party says would cost the Treasury 16.8 billion pounds in 2011-12.
Clegg would pay for the measure by cracking down on tax evasion, cutting pension-tax breaks for the wealthy and imposing a 10 percent levy on bank profits. With other tax increases, including a tax on homes valued at more than 2 million pounds, the party says it would raise 19.2 billion pounds.
Clegg, who was greeted by 17 television cameras at a press briefing in London yesterday, joked that he was pleased at the scrutiny he and his party are now under.
“I’m absolutely delighted that people are taking such a forensic interest in our policies,” Clegg said, before acknowledging that he was aware his party’s popularity could be short-lived. “Bubbles burst and I’m acutely aware that we’re in a very fluid stage in this election campaign.”