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Liberal Democrats Surge in Poll After Clegg Wins U.K. TV Debate

Leader of the Liberal Democrats Party Nick Clegg
Leader of the Liberal Democrats Party Nick Clegg speaks in the first televised general election leader's debate between himself, Gordon Brown of the Labour Party, David Cameron of the Conservative Party at ITV1 North West base studios, in Manchester, on April 15, 2010. Photographer: Ken McKay/ITV via Getty Images

Support for Britain’s third party, the Liberal Democrats, surged in an opinion poll after its leader, Nick Clegg, was adjudged the winner of a televised debate before the May 6 election.

A daily YouGov Plc poll for The Sun showed the Liberal Democrats climbing 8 points to 30 percent, pushing Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s Labour Party into third place, the newspaper reported last night. The main opposition Conservatives, led by David Cameron, fell 4 points to 33 percent and Labour dropped 3 points to 28 percent. YouGov interviewed 1,290 people yesterday, The Sun said. It gave no margin of error.

The increase in support for Clegg’s party is the most significant in any poll since Brown called the vote 10 days ago and indicates that the outcome of the election is more uncertain than ever. Previous polls indicated neither Labour nor the Conservatives were on course for a majority in Parliament and might need the support of the Liberal Democrats or Scottish and Welsh nationalists to form a government.

The April 15 debate “has changed the game,” John Curtice, a professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, said in a telephone interview. “The Lib Dems are now much more serious players. This is a deeply unpopular government and the opposition hadn’t sealed the deal. Clegg was very effective at exploiting that.”

Labour Seats

YouGov pollster Anthony Wells said on his Web site last night that, translated into seats in the 650-member House of Commons, the figures would leave Labour the largest party, even though it was third in support levels. Variations in the distribution of party support throughout Britain mean there’s no direct correlation between the popular vote and the number of electoral districts won.

“The Lib Dems would have around about 100 seats” using the standard calculations drawn up by academics and pollsters, Wells said. “In reality though, it’s almost impossible to say how this would translate into an election result.”

Earlier yesterday, a ComRes Ltd. poll suggested support for the Liberal Democrats rose 3 points after the debate to 24 percent. Backing for the Conservatives was unchanged and Labour fell 1 point to 28 percent.

To come to that result, ComRes interviewed 4,032 viewers by telephone after the TV debate and then weighted the results to take into account previous voting intentions and the fact that the event was seen by only around a quarter of the electorate.

‘Clear Win’

The “debate was a clear win on points for Nick Clegg,” said Andrew Hawkins of ComRes, whose instant poll showed 43 percent saying the Liberal Democrat won to 26 percent picking Cameron and 20 percent Brown. “None of the leaders fared particularly badly or made huge mistakes, but it highlighted the challenge Gordon Brown faces in connecting with voters.”

Two other instant polls also made Clegg the winner. The Liberal Democrat benefited from greater exposure than a third-party leader normally enjoys as he shared equal time in the 90-minute debate in Manchester, northwest England, the first in a British election campaign.

The program attracted 9.4 million viewers, broadcaster ITV said. There were 44 million registered voters as of Dec. 1, according to the Office for National Statistics.

“Yesterday’s leaders’ debate was just the start,” Clegg told supporters yesterday in Warrington, near Manchester. “This general election campaign is about fairness, it’s about who you can trust.”

‘Something Different’

Clegg’s message was that he offered a change from the other two parties, which have held power between them for the past 90 years.

“The more they attack each other the more they sound exactly the same,” he told the audience at one point. “We can do something different this time.”

The prospect of a hung parliament, with the government lacking the strength to attack a record budget deficit, pushed the pound down to as low as $1.5361 from $1.5496 yesterday.

Brown focused his fire on Cameron, whose Conservatives have led polls for almost all of his 2 1/2 years as prime minister, emphasizing his own experience and the risk that Cameron’s plans to cut spending might halt a return to economic growth. “I say to the audience and to the nation, it’s important at this moment to take no risk with the recovery,” Brown said.

Cameron says his party would shrink the size of the state and would go further and faster than Labour in cutting the deficit. At almost 12 percent of economic output, the shortfall rivals that of Greece’s 13 percent deficit.

Two more debates will follow in the next two weeks.

“Suddenly we’re in uncharted waters,” The Sun quoted YouGov Chairman Peter Kellner as saying. “The Lib Dem surge throws this election wide open.”

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