Britain braces for election that could herald EU exit

27th January 2015, Comments 0 comments

Britain on Tuesday marked 100 days until one of the most unpredictable elections in memory, as Prime Minister David Cameron fights to retain power and call a referendum on European Union membership.

A fragmented vote in which no party wins an overall majority is seen as the most likely result, meaning smaller parties will probably have to prop up either Cameron's Conservatives or the main opposition Labour party.

If the Conservatives win outright on May 7, Cameron has said he will seek to renegotiate Britain's relationship with the EU before calling an in-or-out referendum on a "Brexit" by the end of 2017.

But experts predict that neither the Conservatives nor Labour will secure a majority in the 650-seat House of Commons.

"Like everyone else, I have no idea," Professor Tim Bale, chair in politics at Queen Mary, University of London, told AFP.

"The only prediction is that it's incredibly unlikely that any of the main parties will end up with an overall majority."

Instead, Britain could face days of uncertainty, potentially unsettling financial markets, as the parties hold talks on how to stitch together a government.

- UKIP polling strongly -

For the past five years, the Conservatives have governed with the centrist Liberal Democrats in Britain's first coalition government since World War II.

Opinion polls currently put the Conservatives and centre-left Labour almost neck-and-neck.

The Conservatives are on 32 percent voter support versus 33 percent for Labour, according to an average of leading surveys calculated by the UK Polling Report website.

Nigel Farage's anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) is ranked third with 15 percent, while the Liberal Democrats have plunged to eight percent.

Cameron is campaigning on the economy, telling voters they cannot afford to jeopardise Britain's recovery -- the strongest among major European nations -- by ditching the Conservatives.

Figures out Tuesday showed that the economy grew by 2.6 percent last year and Cameron insisted this showed that "our long-term economic plan is working."

"In 100 days, the country faces a choice between competence and chaos," he added on Twitter.

However, the Conservatives have struggled to shake off their "nasty party" label, with many voters believing austerity measures have slashed public services such as the state-run National Health Service (NHS) too harshly.

Labour says its economic plan would prove less damaging to the NHS and other public services, while still cutting a £91.3 billion (115 billion euro, $143 billion) deficit.

Miliband said in a speech Tuesday that Conservative policies had helped "an ever-shrinking circle of people do well while everybody else is forced to work harder and harder".

But he is dogged by questions about his leadership skills and an awkward public image.

- The kingmakers? -

With experts predicting that neither main party will be able to rule on its own, Cameron or Miliband will likely have to find allies to form a government.

This could either materialise in a formal coalition or on an informal basis where parties back a minority government on key votes in return for policy concessions.

The Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party (SNP) look best placed to play kingmaker.

Though support for the Liberal Democrats has dropped by over two-thirds since 2010, the party could retain up to 30 seats, according to Bale, down from 56 currently.

Meanwhile the SNP, which wants independence for Scotland but lost a referendum on the issue last year, is set to make major gains as its membership surges.

It is thought to be targeting between 12 and 20 seats, up from six at the moment.

"There's a pretty sizeable chance of a scenario where Labour wins the most seats, doesn't have a majority, but can get through a functioning governing majority with either the Liberal Democrats or the SNP," elections expert Benjamin Lauderdale of the London School of Economics told AFP.

Parties like UKIP may not win as many seats as their support in polls suggests, because under Britain's first-past-the-post electoral system, it is only the ability to win individual seats that counts -- not a party's nationwide level of backing.

Professor Steven Fielding of Nottingham University predicted that UKIP could win "a handful of seats, probably five to 10" in the House of Commons.

"I don't think this election will see UKIP gaining a lot of seats, but it may give them sufficient influence to ensure a referendum," he told AFP.


© 2015 AFP

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