By Adrian Croft
With no party in the lead to the run up to the elections, what would a hung parliament mean for the UK?
Many believe that the United Kingdom could wake up to a hung Parliament on May 7th, as no party has yet managed to open a decisive lead in the run up to national elections. But what would such a result mean for the country? The liberal democrats have said they would not back Gordon Brown in power if his party came third in the popular vote on May 6, even if Britain's quirky system gave Labour the most parliamentary seats.
"It's just preposterous the idea that if a party comes third in terms of the number of votes it still somehow has got the right to carry on squatting in Number 10 (Downing Street)," Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg told BBC TV.
Clegg blew open the election campaign two weeks ago with a strong performance in the nation's first US-style televised debate of party leaders, which saw support for his Lib Dems rocket, turning them from perennial also-rans into possible kingmakers.
Polls in newspapers suggest that the Conservatives are set to become the largest party but will fail to win the number of seats needed to give them an overall majority, leaving a "hung parliament" with no clear winner.
The surveys also indicate that Brown's centre-left Labour party are trailing Clegg's centrist Lib Dems, coming in third in public support.
Under Britain's first-part-the-post electoral system, Labour could remain the biggest party in the 650-seat parliament despite polling the third-largest number of votes.
Clegg spelt out for the first time that he would not back Brown to stay in government under those circumstances.
"I think a party which has come third, and so millions of people have decided to abandon them, has lost the election spectacularly (and) cannot then lay claim to providing the prime minister of this country," he said.
Instead, he vowed to support whichever party won both the most votes and the most seats, which current polls, though volatile, indicate is likely to be the Conservatives.
Britain has not had a "hung parliament" since the days of the global oil crisis in 1974 and the prospect has many worried urgently needed action to tackle a record budget deficit could be delayed under such a scenario.
Financial markets would likely be reassured if a coalition government was formed which had clear policies on tackling the deficit, running at more than 11 percent of GDP, analyst said.
The centre-right Conservatives want to make spending cuts more quickly and deeply than Labour.
Labour and the Lib Dems are more natural bedfellows, and commentators say that senior figures in Brown's party have been making subtle public overtures to Clegg.
But in a recent interview, Clegg described Labour as "increasingly irrelevant"and the election was a straight fight between his party and the Conservatives.
The issue of electoral reform looms in this election and could be a factor spoiling the chances of a coalition between the Conservatives and Lib Dems, which have long campaigned for change, not least because the current system works against them.Clegg said that reform remained a top priority.
"I think it is more than that (non-negotiable). I think it is unavoidable for any party whatever the outcome," he said.
Conservative leader David Cameron has not ruled out change but, when asked about the issue on Sunday, he and other senior party figures repeated their warning that a coalition or hung parliament would be bad for Britain.
"I want us to keep the current system that enables you to throw a government out of office," Cameron told the Observer newspaper.
With Labour's support appearing to ebb, Brown said he was still fighting for victory, while senior party figures dismissed Clegg's comments on any future coalition.
"It's a matter for Nick Clegg," Douglas Alexander, Labour's election coordinator, told Reuters. "We are working hard and our focus is entirely on maximising the Labour vote and securing a Labour majority government on May 6." Conservatives issue election stalemate warning
The Conservatives have said a stalemate in next month's election would threaten the country's economy as polls showed the tightest election race in nearly 20 years was likely to produce no outright winner.
A surge in support for the Liberal Democrats has increased the prospect of a "hung parliament," with no single party in control, for the first time since the days of the global oil crisis in 1974.
The centre-right Conservatives' once commanding lead in the polls has withered in recent weeks and they now lack the support needed to guarantee a return to power in the May 6 vote, after 13 years in opposition.
Five surveys published in Sunday newspapers put the Conservatives narrowly ahead of, or level with, the Lib Dems, with prime minister Brown's Labour Party third.
However, an Ipsos MORI poll for Sunday's News of the World bucked the trend, saying support for the Lib Dems appeared to be on the wane, putting the party well down in third place.
The election race has been thrown wide open by the recent rise in support for the centrist Lib Dems following the strong performances of the party's leader Nick Clegg in last month's televised debates.
Conservative leader David Cameron focussed a campaign speech on Saturday almost totally on the risk he said a hung parliament would pose, particularly to the economy as Britain slowly emerges from the worst recession since World War Two.
Polls say the economy is far and away the voters' biggest concern and the issue has dominated the campaign.
"We need to win this argument in this election campaign that a hung parliament isn't a change for the better, it would be a change for the worse," said Cameron, adding it would leave politicians "bickering, horse-trading and arguing."
Unlike western European parties, British parties have little experience of the negotiations that go with coalition building. Any power handover is almost brutally swift.
The familiar image the day after a sitting government is defeated is of the prime minister leaving his Downing Street residence, his goods dispatched in a removal van, and the new resident moving straight in.The prospect of an inconclusive election result has worried financial markets which fear a coalition government would fail to make spending cuts needed to tackle a record budget deficit.
However, analysts have suggested markets might be coming round to the idea that a hung parliament would not be as damaging as initially feared.
The Conservatives want to cut the deficit, running at more than 11 percent of GDP, more quickly and deeply than prime minister Brown's Labour government.
"Think about the threat of a hung parliament to our economy - a hung parliament where there's no agreement about getting on with dealing with the debt and deficit," Cameron told supporters in Thurrock, east of London.
Labour say last month's lower-than-expected GDP figures support their stance that it is too early to make cuts.
"I will not hesitate to go round the country every day saying the Conservative Party are now the greatest risk to the economic recovery of this country," Brown said in a speech in Corby.
With Labour trailing in the polls and the Lib Dems holding onto recent gains, media reports said Brown's party was rethinking its strategy. They said the prime minister was poised to become a more visible presence on the campaign trail, meeting with undecided voters rather than party supporters.
Businesses uneasy over hung parliament
Nearly two-thirds of British businesses are concerned about the potential impact of a hung parliament, according to the results of a recent survey.
The prospect of a hung parliament, a rare outcome in British politics, has prompted concern about political deadlock hampering efforts to cut a record budget deficit.
While some market participants have become more open to the idea, the British Chambers of Commerce's business survey showed 65 percent of the 300 companies polled were either "concerned" or "very concerned" about the impact a hung parliament would have on their business.
"Businesses are right to be wary about the prospect of a hung parliament. Instinctively, companies prefer a clear mandate to lead and govern," said BCC Director General David Frost.
"With our economy still fragile and the public finances in a dire state, the overwhelming concern is whether a hung parliament will provide decisive action around the UK's unsustainable deficit."
This was the first time the BCC had included a question on the prospects of a hung parliament in their monthly survey, which aims to canvass businesses' views on topical matters.
The economy has become a key election battle ground, with the Labour party, in power for 13 years, arguing spending cuts to trim the budget deficit must be delayed until economic recovery is assured, while the Conservatives want to start cutting sooner.
Asked which form of taxation, aside from planned increases such as to the National Insurance payroll tax, were most likely to rise after the election, 54 percent said the VAT sales tax, while 12 percent predicted a hike in income tax.
Last month, ratings agency Moody's said a hung parliament would not necessarily hurt Britain's triple-A rating as there is a broad political consensus on the need to cut the deficit.
Additional reporting by Peter Griffiths and Kylie MacLellan