LONDON (Reuters) - Nick Clegg, leader of Britain’s third-largest political party, moved center stage in the election race on Saturday after his Liberal Democrats pushed the ruling Labour Party into third place in an opinion poll.
The YouGov survey in the Sun newspaper showed support for the Lib Dems up 8 points on 30 percent, behind the main opposition Conservatives on 33 percent, but for the first time ahead of Labour, on 28 percent.
The rise in the Lib Dem fortunes increases the prospect of a hung parliament after polling day on May 6, where no party has outright control, an outcome not seen in Britain since 1974.
If the latest poll result were repeated nationally on polling day, the quirks of Britain’s electoral system mean Labour would emerge as the largest party in parliament, according to a Sky News seat predictor, and could remain in power if the Lib Dems offered their support.
The pound weakened on Friday over fears a coalition or minority government would struggle to tackle Britain’s huge budget deficit approaching 12 percent of gross domestic product.
The poll boost followed Clegg’s well-received appearance in a live television debate on Thursday. Viewers and commentators judged the 43-year-old to have performed better than Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Conservative leader David Cameron.
“What last 24 hours has shown is there are a growing number of people who just desperately want something different, they want more of a choice than the old politics of the past,” Clegg told Sky News.
“That hope is what I and the Liberal Democrats will be offering throughout this election campaign.”
Brown said the election was now “wide open” following the debate, the first ever broadcast ahead of a British election.
The Conservatives, who have lead polls consistently since January 2008, must win seats from the Lib Dems if they are to have a chance of clinching an outright victory.
In response, the Conservatives turned their campaign focus on Saturday away from Labour and onto the Lib Dems, saying Lib Dem policies would now be subject to greater scrutiny.
Cameron, addressing party activists in Gloucester in southwest England, said a weak government would be bad for Britain, which needed a strong, Conservative, government.
“A hung parliament would be a bunch of politicians haggling, not deciding. They would be fighting for their own interests, not fighting for your interests,” he said.
“They would not be making long term decisions for the country’s future. They would be making short term decisions for their own future.”
One senior Labour politician indicated the party would see surviving as the major partner in a coalition government as a victory if it stopped a Conservative, or “Tory,” administration.
Cabinet minister Alan Johnson told the Times newspaper that politicians should stop scaremongering about a hung parliament.
“It wouldn’t be as good as a Labour government but anything is better than the Tories,” he said.