Clegg Says Brown Can't Stay as Premier After Third-Place Finish by Labour
Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said it would be “preposterous” for Gordon Brown to stay as prime minister if his Labour Party comes in third in the popular vote in the May 6 U.K. election, highlighting the obstacles to Brown remaining in power.
“There are now indications Labour might come third in terms of people voting for the different parties,” Clegg told BBC 1 television’s Andrew Marr program yesterday. “It is just preposterous, the idea that if a party comes third in terms of the number of votes it still somehow has the right to carry on squatting in No. 10,” the premier’s Downing Street office, “and continue to lay claim to having the prime minister.”
Out of 27 polls completed since Clegg’s breakthrough performance in the first televised leaders’ debate on April 15, 21 have put Labour in third place in popular support, according to the U.K. Polling Report Web site. The electoral system means Labour might still win the largest number of seats in Parliament even if it finishes third in vote share.
Clegg said the recent rise in support for the Liberal Democrats meant changes to the voting system would be “unavoidable” after the election, signaling that would be an important element in deciding whether to support one of the other parties in a hung Parliament in which no party has an outright majority.
A YouGov Plc poll of 1,466 people in today’s Sun newspaper put David Cameron’s Conservatives at 34 percent, the Liberal Democrats at 30 percent and Labour at 28 percent. No margin of error was given.
According to British Broadcasting Corp. calculations, such a result would give Labour 264 seats out of 650 in Parliament, the Conservatives 259 and the Liberal Democrats 98. The uneven distribution of party support across the country means the Conservatives need at least a 10 percentage-point lead over Labour to be sure of gaining a majority of seats.
A hung Parliament may roil markets because a divided government would be too weak to fix Britain’s finances, some economists say. The pound slumped 1 percent in the two days after the first debate. It has fallen 4.8 percent against the dollar this year.
A survey of 300 businesses by the British Chambers of Commerce published today found 65 percent “concerned” or “very concerned” at the prospect of a hung Parliament. “Instinctively, companies prefer a clear mandate to lead and govern,” BCC Director General David Frost said in an e-mailed statement.
The momentum gained by Clegg after two leaders’ debates may prevent the Conservatives from winning swing seats held by Labour and the Liberal Democrats that Cameron’s party needs to take power. The Conservatives responded to Clegg’s surge by arguing that a vote for him could see Brown returned to office.
The Liberal Democrat leader “has to protect himself from the ‘Vote Clegg, Get Brown,’ tag,” said Steven Fielding, director of the Centre for British Politics at Nottingham University. “He wants to retain the idea that he’s the change. The idea that he’d prop up a third-placed Brown would completely undermine that.”
First Past the Post
Electoral-system changes are vital to the Liberal Democrats because the first-past-the-post rule hurts smaller parties. In 2005, Liberal Democrats won 22 percent of the vote but fewer than 10 percent of the seats. If there is a hung Parliament, Clegg’s party may be able to demand change as a price for its support.
“It’s about trying to seize the initiative in negotiations, trying to show they have terms and conditions,” said Andrew Russell, co-author of “Neither Left Nor Right,” a history of the Liberal Democrats.
As well as voting change, the Liberal Democrats are also seeking to clamp down on bonus payments to bankers and to relieve 3.6 million low earners of the need to pay income tax.
In an interview with yesterday’s Observer newspaper, Cameron refused to rule out the possibility of a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, although he emphasized he prefers to keep the electoral system in its current form to enable voters “to throw a government out of office.”
Cameron will today attempt to win back voters who’ve swung to the Liberal Democrats, saying his party offers the best prospect of real change. “Whether you’ve been a Lib Dem voter or a Labour voter or a Green voter,” he will say, according to extracts of a speech released in advance by his office. “If you care about the environment, if you want action to improve your quality of life, if you care about civil liberties, if you care about people power, if you want a clean break from the past -- vote Conservative.”
Brown used a speech in London yesterday to warn that a Conservative government would cut spending in areas that rely on it most. “They have already marked out the regions to be hit first and hardest,” he said.
A report by the Centre for Economic and Business Research today shows that in two regions, Wales and Northern Ireland, public spending accounts for 70 percent of gross domestic product, twice what it does in London. For the U.K. as a whole, government spending has risen to 48 percent of GDP in the current fiscal year from 37 percent in 1998-99.
‘Flirting’ With Clegg
Business Secretary Peter Mandelson, acknowledging his party is trailing in the polls, said in a Sunday Mirror newspaper interview that some former Labour voters are considering “looking elsewhere.” He said his message to them was that a vote for the Liberal Democrats risked a Conservative government.
“You might start flirting with Nick Clegg, but that way you will end up marrying David Cameron,” Mandelson said.
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