LONDON (Reuters) - Opinion polls indicated on Monday Britain remained on course for a parliament with no outright majority, raising the rare prospect of a minority or coalition government after Thursday’s election.
David Cameron, the leader of the center-right Conservatives, had claimed to have the momentum after a strong performance in last week’s leaders’ television debate.
However, surveys on Monday indicated his party’s lead had been pegged back to 5 percentage points — as little as half their weekend advantage — and suggested either the Conservatives or Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s Labour Party could still capture most seats in the 650-member parliament.
Cameron, speaking in the northern English seaside town of Blackpool on a public holiday, acknowledged that millions of Britons had not decided how to vote.
Seeking to end center-left Labour’s 13-year hold in power, Cameron has pledged to campaign all night this week to try to win over waverers.
“This election is not yet won, but if we get out there, we can — and I use the word can, I always use the word can, never the word will — win it.”
The quirks of Britain’s electoral system, where seats are allocated purely by constituency results, and not in proportion to the overall share of the vote, mean that Labour could come third in the popular vote but still remain the largest bloc.
The race has been blown wide open by a strong showing from the Liberal Democrats, traditionally Britain’s third party, whose own telegenic leader, Nick Clegg, has challenged Cameron’s claim to be the candidate of change.
Clegg, whose centrist party has taken a tough line on bank bonuses and wants to reform the electoral system, told potential supporters not to lose their nerve.
“We have an opportunity of a lifetime, a once-in-a-generation chance, to change Britain for good,” he said during a campaign stop in south London.
If the polls were replicated nationwide on Thursday, it would result in a “hung parliament” where no single party has an overall majority, a result last seen in Britain in 1974.
What happens after that is a matter of huge speculation.
The uncertainty could unsettle markets who want swift action to tackle a budget deficit running at over 11 percent of GDP, although the currency and foreign exchange markets have so far taken the growing prospect of a hung parliament in their stride.
Monday’s ICM/Guardian poll had the Conservatives on 33 percent, five points ahead of both Labour and the Lib Dems, with the Conservatives the biggest party in parliament.
The daily YouGov/Sun poll put the Conservatives on 34 percent, the Lib Dems on 29 percent and Labour on 28 percent, this time with Labour the biggest party.
Campaigning in eastern England, Brown highlighted Labour promises to protect schools, hospitals and police services.
“I am fighting for my life because I am fighting for the future of this country,” Brown said.
Government guidelines say that, in the event of a hung parliament, the incumbent administration can make the first attempt to see if it can command the confidence of the lower chamber, the House of Commons.
That would almost certainly require a deal between the Lib Dems and Labour. However, Clegg has indicated he would be reluctant to work with Brown as Labour leader.
Another scenario has Cameron leading a minority government, daring the opposition to vote down his budget and force another unwanted election.
Editing by Ralph Boulton